WAUKEGAN, Ill. – When Mayor Richard Hyde looks at the waterfront here, he sees beyond the toxic waste, the empty factories and the vacant lots. He envisions a post-industrial future of condos, shops and restaurants – a bustling community of 10,000 affluent people on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Unfortunately for the mayor, three factories have no plans to leave. They’ve been in Waukegan for generations and their owners don’t appreciate being treated like outcasts to be evicted.
“We’ve given them notice,” says the mayor, 80, who was born here. “They can stay another five years, maybe 10 or 15 years, but after that they must go.”
Why close a profitable, non-polluting wallboard plant that would cost $100 million to replace? asks National Gypsum plant manager Steve Rogers, 31. Sixty workers would lose jobs paying $18 to $20 an hour. “They aren’t going to make that kind of money serving mocha frappuccinos,” he says.
The conflict in Waukegan symbolizes the dramatic changes sweeping across the five Great Lakes, a region that is trying to reinvent itself in a way that could have major implications for the nation. Attitudes about the Great Lakes have changed so drastically during the past three decades that manufacturers are finding themselves unwelcome even in cities they once ruled.
“The Great Lakes are viewed more today like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite – a natural resource rather than a waste receptacle for industry,” says Cameron Davis, executive director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the oldest environmental group dedicated to the lakes’ protection.
The five lakes – Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario – cover an area equal in size to New England and half of New York state. Some heavy industry is still attracted to the lakes. Two oil companies want to spend $10 billion on mammoth refinery expansions, one on the shore of Lake Michigan, the other on Lake Superior. What’s changed the region, however, are foreign competition, politics and lifestyles.