A Rising Soo Lock Lifts National Economy


There’s so much going on in the Grand Traverse region these days that it’s necessary to remind ourselves of other issues and projects happening beyond our backyard that are critical to the regional economy.

We’re fortunate that one of those topics – the aging condition of the Soo Locks that link the western Upper Peninsula’s iron ore mines to steel mills across the Midwest and beyond ­– is finally getting the attention it deserves. The Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition, a group of more than 40 chambers across the Great Lakes states including the Traverse City Area Chamber and the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance, is making some waves in its ongoing efforts to upgrade the Soo Locks to ensure that it remains a functioning gateway in the country’s manufacturing supply chain.

The importance of the Soo Locks to the national and regional economies can’t be overstated. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security indicates that a 6-month shutdown of the nearly 50-year-old Poe Lock through the St. Mary’s River in Sault Ste. Marie because of an equipment failure or other problem would ignite a national recession that would cripple automobile and heavy equipment production across a wide swath of the country. Up to 11 million jobs and over $1 trillion in annual economic output could be affected. The report called the Poe Lock, which steers the largest of the 1,000-foot Great Lakes vessels from Lake Superior to the lower waters, “the Achilles heel of the North American industrial economy.”

A lengthy shut down of the Poe Lock is obviously a worst-case scenario. But the smaller and older MacArthur Lock was closed for almost three weeks last summer to repair a broken gate. Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which operate and maintain the Soo Locks acknowledge that as the Locks age, the likelihood of occasional failures will continue to increase.

This isn’t a new issue for the Great Lakes Metro Chambers, which has tracked and advocated for this project for years. At the Coalition’s recent legislative fly-in with Congressional lawmakers in Washington that included our Government Relations Director Kent Wood, the Metro Chambers continue to support an Economic Revaluation Report needed in advance of building a new Poe-sized lock, and to incorporate the key Homeland Security findings into the Army Corps’ evaluation.

These efforts are gaining traction. The Michigan Congressional delegation supports upgrades to the Soo Locks, and lawmakers from other parts of the country are also taking note. With an increased focus on fixing our country’s aging infrastructure – and on the Poe Lock’s critical role in the U.S. manufacturing sector – momentum is growing to get this issue on Congress’ front burner. It’s past time to make this project – officially authorized by Congress 30 years ago but never adequately funded – become a reality.

The Traverse City Area Chamber and the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance are also working with the Metro Chambers on upgrades to other sections of the Great Lakes shipping network, on federal highway transportation issues, on federal visa programs to bolster our region’s workforce and other macro issues that have a real impact on our local and regional economies. Because as much as we often think the world begins and ends with our beautiful and one-of-a-kind region, it’s important to remember that we’re part of a much bigger picture that needs to be kept in focus.

Doug Luciani is the CEO of TraverseCONNECT, a regional economic development agency that includes the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact him by email at doug@TraverseCONNECT.org