Economic and Community Development
Six Key Points on Regional Cooperation
What can you learn in 2 days and 2 nights at a palatial estate in the Hudson Valley with a room full of smart, experienced regionalists? I'm sure glad I'm in a position to answer.
Last week I participated in a symposium on states and regions organized by the Citistates Group. The event was generously hosted by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and supported by the Carnegie Corporation and the William Penn Foundation. Citistates founders and 2009 ARS-John Parr Award Honorees Neil Pierce, Curtis Johnson and Farley Peters pulled together this ‘meeting of the regional minds’ to address one central challenge: metropolitan regions are the geography of the economy but not the geography of government.
Along with a couple of chamber leaders, I was joined by representatives from MPOs, COGs, universities, foundations, think tanks, and several former big city mayors. To articulate the professional accomplishments and accolades of this distinguished group of veteran practitioners and thinkers would easily run two hours or more. And it did. Thirty minutes into the introductions my suspicions were confirmed; I was the low man on the totem pole in both credentials and class. I just hoped a few of the collected IQ points might rub off on me.
From Wednesday evening through midday Friday we discussed and debated. What is the best structure to organize regional stakeholders? Can state governments help, or do they need to just get out of the way? Can you expect regional cooperation without a galvanizing crisis? Does the “ism” in regionalism turn people off? Can the Cardinals really come back with 2 outs and 2 strikes in the bottom of the ninth?
Scattered amid the discussion were some fantastic success stories from leaders in the field: Atlanta’s regional regulatory and infrastructure action to quickly solve an acute water crisis, Seattle’s alignment of two major ports and dozens of distinct municipalities to speak with a unified voice on international trade and investment recruitment. Don’t be surprised to see more detailed write ups of these success stories soon.
At the end of the day I left with renewed confidence in some core convictions about regional cooperation:
- Business leadership is essential to regional action. Business groups are the only entities with political leverage across the multiple jurisdictions that comprise a region.
- The outcome of regional action is far more important than the structure or governance of regional organization. As the Atlanta Chamber’s Sam Williams said, “Results and outcomes equal power and influence.”
- Someone has to provide neutral turf to get suspicious stakeholders together. Whether COG, MPO or chamber, the regional convener role is vital.
I also picked up a few concepts that, while not necessarily new, are now crystal clear and I'm likely to repeat:
- Economic competitiveness can be the great unifier for regions. The downturn has compounded our challenges but it has also provided a rallying point for individuals with different political affiliations and groups with different agendas – jobs, trade and investment.
- We’re all the same, but we’re not. There is plenty of head-nodding and “me too” expressions when someone describes the challenges facing his region, but the context is always unique. Orlando is not Cleveland is not San Diego, but they can learn a lot from each other’s experience. That’s why I think detailed success and failure stories are as important (if not more important) than models.
- Business can’t do it alone; it needs a strong public sector partner. I’m not just talking about public/private partnerships, I mean a visionary elected or appointed public sector leader willing to cross political divides and work with non-traditional allies for the common good. Almost every success story cited last week mentioned dynamic individual players from the public and private sectors. I should note here that Mick has said this to me dozens of times, but I really get it now.
Where does the learning and collected input from last week’s symposium go from here? I’ll leave that tough question in the capable hands of Neil, Curt and Farley. For me, I brought back a renewed conviction in the important role chambers must play as regional actors and the important role ACCE must play in equipping chambers with the information, connections and success stories to fulfill that role. Expect to see more…