Lessons from Germany’s Ruhr District, Part 1

Rust Wire correspondent Ivy Hughes recently visited Germany’s Ruhr District, a northwestern part of the country recovering from the loss of jobs in of the steel and coal industry. The district includes 53 cites and more than 5.3 million residents. The region is a 2010 European Capital of Culture, an annul EU designation awarded to a city or region for the purpose of showcasing its cultural development. As such, the municipalities within the Ruhr District worked within a €62.5 million budget to create 300 projects and 2,500 events highlighting its cultural assets and efforts to reconstruct an economy devastated by the demise a prominent industrial sector. This three-part series highlights some of the structural, economic and cultural changes a region similar to the Rust Belt in terms of industrial and economic collapse is making to facilitate economic diversification. Her trip was made possible through the Ecologic Institute and sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office through the Transatlantic Climate Bridge.

Part One: Transforming Industry

Exchanging vows, eating dinner and ice-skating on one of the thousand abandon manufacturing sites in Michigan is an imaginative stretch at best, but it’s an idea and if the Rust Belt needs anything, it’s vision and money.

Michigan has 20,000 abandoned commercial buildings that will remain empty, meet a wrecking ball, or be repurposed for alternative energy, healthcare, film or biotech businesses. Even though some will be repurposed, it’s impractical to suggest emerging industries have the capacity to reinvigorate even one-third of these sites, some of which include millions of acres of contaminated space.

So if industry can’t take it, the wrecking balls are worn out and vacancies red flag potential investors, what else can the state do with the 60,000 square feet to more than 5 million square foot sites?

The state can examine how other regions facing similar challenges have innovated and progressed.

Germany’s Ruhr District is similar to Michigan in that it relied on blue-collar industry for economic stability. In 1960, 670,000 people worked in Ruhr District coalmines. Today, that number sits at about 35,000 but additional job loss is eminent. Three of the remaining six mines are set to close in the next six months, with a final shutdown expected by 2018.

Though Michigan hasn’t been dealing with large-scale job loss for quite as long, the last 10 years have been extremely difficult. According to the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, from 2000 to 2008, the state lost 315,000 manufacturing jobs.

Both regions are reeling from industry specific job loss, but differ greatly in terms of strategic planning, funding sources, government involvement and political cooperation. However, that doesn’t mean Michigan can’t borrow a few things from Germany, specifically as it relates to rehabilitation of abandoned manufacturing sites.

The City of Essen, Germany, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the European Union committed to marrying historical preservation and innovation by turning the Zollverein Coal Mine, a 247-acre site with more than 80-structures, into an extraordinary culture center.

The Zollverein Coal Mine was founded in 1847. When it closed in 1986, the North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) governmental entity, bought the property and memorialized one of the shafts, setting the site up for preservation. In 1993, the cooking plant closed and was slated for sale to China. The deal fell through and rather than demolishing the cooking plant, the NRW pegged it as a future exhibition site.

By 2008, the European Union (36 percent), the City of Essen (2 percent), Germany (6 percent) and the NRW (56 percent) invested approximately €165 million to rehabilitate the site.*

Today, the grisly, iconic structures include a restaurant, museum, outdoor ice rink, café, lecture space, lavish art museum, office space, indoor and outdoor space used for performance art, weddings and other cultural events and outdoor recreational areas, many of which were developed on mine-refuse heaps.

The site is a cultural destination attracting more than one million visitors a year and is listed as a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Grangerization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.

The sheer amount of collaboration involved in preserving such a site is mind boggling, but the way in which developers created cultural cohesion without duplication is striking. Though municipal collaboration in Michigan is improving, it is, at this point, fantastical to believe enough units of government would sideline hubris long enough to plan a project of this magnitude.

The closest thing Michigan has to a manufacturing-site-turned-cultural-center is the old General Motors Centerpoint business campus in Pontiac. Raleigh Michigan Studios purchased the property in 2009 after the state passed ambitious film tax credit legislation. Raleigh Michigan Studios plans to create a 200,000 square foot sound stage for TV and movie production on the site, which is good news for Michigan, but far from a cultural center.

Unlike Germany, Michigan isn’t being tapped to carry the economic weight of failing governments and as such, the financial mechanisms needed for a project like the Zollverein Coal Mine are depressed. The feds are throwing some money at Michigan, but environmental contamination, municipal collaboration and vision quickly derail well-intentioned rehabilitation projects.

In Michigan as in the rest of the states, private sector funding is critical to substantial economic change. While some developers have looked into creating theme parks and/or wetlands on some of Michigan’s abandoned sites, a collision between ideas and the market haven’t occurred.

Though the Zollverein project has brought international attention to Essen, it’s unrealistic to assume a replication of the Zollverein rehabilitation would be economically viable on a similar site in the Ruhr region. The Zollverein has vacant offices spaces and it’s hard to imagine that the massive rooms set aside for cultural events — art, dance, performance — will ever fill, but it’s an idea.

*These are approximations compiled from multiple sources.

-Ivy Hughes

Top photo: Courtesy Zollverein coal mine, other photos by Ivy Hughes.

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Filed under Economic Development, Good Ideas, Green Jobs, Headline, U.S. Auto Industry

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