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Midwest – gears shifted from “Rust Belt” to “Trust Belt”

Columbus, Ohio, is ready to power the reindustrialization of the Midwest – and the rest of the United States economy with it. “The Trust Belt revival is essential to the overall economic stability of the US. With a population of 104 million and a US$5.6 trillion GDP, the ‘Trust Belt Region’ is crucial.” If the Trust Belt were a country, it would be the third largest economy in the world behind the U.S. and China,” says a statement from investment specialists Conway and its magazine arm Site Selection, the organizers of the first Trust Belt Conference, which will be held from May 31st to June 3rd, 2015.

Midwestern states traditionally are using tax law changes and other reforms to transform and increase economic opportunity in their region, marking their renaissance as the “Trust Belt,” say the organizers. An example is Ohio, which has the second largest number of Tier I automotive suppliers in the US – or nearly 10% of all North American Tier I automotive suppliers. According to Site Selection magazine, 2014 was a banner year for the Midwest. Over the past few years both Ford and General Motors have expanded their operations in Ohio. Other investments include a US$36-million investment by Toyota in its 27-year-old complex in Georgetown to produce the Lexus ES 350 sedan. This is the first ES production outside Japan.

The Trust Belt initiative is upbeat about indicators from other parts of the Midwest such as Iowa. Central Iowa saw US$1.3 billion in investments since 2013. Apart from healthcare start-ups and social networking site Facebook, companies like Microsoft, John Deere and DuPont have invested in the state.

The Trust Belt Conference will see Governors, Mayors, University Presidents, Fortune 500 CEOs and executives who are leading the communities and companies of the Greater Midwest Region come together to discuss how the Trust Belt economy has, and is, reinventing itself.

Automotive Industries (AI) asked Ron Starner, EVP of Conway and the organizer of the Trust Belt Conference how difficult it has been to change perceptions of the Midwest from ‘Rust Belt’ to ‘Trust Belt’.

Starner: It is has been very difficult. For starters, the national news media continue to perpetuate a narrative that defines the Midwest as the “Rust Belt,” a stereotype that conjures up images of rusted-out factories, laid-off auto workers and decaying communities. While there are still some pockets of the Midwest where these problems continue to fester, the overall description of “Rust Belt” no longer applies.

AI: What are some of the reasons why companies are moving to the Midwest?

Starner: Companies are moving to the Midwest largely for sound business reasons: lower operating costs than are normally found in the Northeast and West Coast; businessfriendly governments at the state and local level; a well-trained workforce that is used to working hard in advanced manufacturing environments; a university system that emphasizes STEM skill sets; lower cost living for employees; attractive quality of life; and family-friendly communities.

AI: How about automotive manufacturers?

Starner: The Midwest remains the automotive manufacturing capital of the country – and with good reason. Michigan, Ohio and Indiana continue to lead all states in total automotive sector employment. In addition to the major assembly plant operations of the Big Three, the Midwest is now home to large plants for Honda, Toyota and a plethora of large Japanese and European automotive suppliers. The primary reasons for this are a large and well-trained workforce; state governments that welcome and incentivize automotive plant expansions; a rapidly improving environment in management-labor relations; and an influx of probusiness governors being elected throughout the region (i.e., Snyder in Michigan, Kasich in Ohio, Pence in Indiana, Branstad in Iowa, etc.).

AI: How do you go about positioning the Midwest as an ideal hub for automotive manufacturing compared to China, Thailand, India and other low-cost countries? Starner:

The bottom line is that automotive manufacturing operations will continue to need to be located near the major OEMs, and it’s a safe bet that these major OEMs will remain located in the Midwest for a long time to come. There has been too much invested into the workforce and plant infrastructure in this region to go away from it now. Plus, states like Michigan, Ohio and Indiana have turned the corner and finally positioned themselves as pro-business states. On top of that, they have begun to aggressively market themselves accordingly, under the auspices of programs such as the Pure Michigan Campaign of the Michigan EDC, JobsOhio and the Indiana Economic Development Corp.

AI: What is the response to the Trust Belt Conference elicited?

Starner: It has been overwhelmingly positive. The central message of an ongoing economic renaissance resonates throughout the region. Plus, folks in this region are tired of having to listen to the same old, tired narrative from the national news media. They are ready for a message of refreshing change, and the focus of the Trust Belt Conference provides that.

AI: What are some of the highlights of the conference?

Starner: The highlights can be found in the world-class speaker lineup on the program. Experts on the economy and demographic trends are all over this program – Meredith Whitney, Marisa Di Natale, Joel Kotkin and Ali Velshi are just a few of them. Plus, attendees will hear from CEOs of some of the top companies in the region, including Huntington Bank, NiSource, Bank of America and Walbridge.

AI: What results are you hoping for at the end of the three-day event?

Starner: We are looking for a change in the narrative. We would like to see the perception of the Midwest changed from Rust Belt to Trust Belt. We would like to see the national news media acknowledge this economic transformation and start covering it to a commensurate degree. More importantly, we hope that this event jumpstarts a dialogue between the builders of community and the builders of industry throughout the region, so that new solutions can be developed to meet the region’s current problems, whether economic or social.

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