The Midwesterner: The Midwest is going regional

By Richard C. Longworth

Everyone who's studied the Midwestern economy agrees that strictly local solutions don't work, and it's time to work regionally. Everyone also agrees that Midwesterners are just too ornery by nature to accept the cooperation that regionalism requires. 

It's beginning to look as though everyone is only half right. Regional arrangements are sprouting like corn in June. It's too early yet to say what they'll yield, or how deep their roots go. But for now, regionalism looks like an idea whose time has come. At the least, it shows that Midwesterners, after years in denial over the state of their economy, have awakened to the realities of coping in a global economy.  

First, and still foremost, are the fairly well developed attempts by cities and their suburbs to link their economic development and marketing programs. There's a lot of this: Chicago and its suburban counties, Milwaukee and the M-7, the Indianapolis region, greater Kansas City, greater Des Moines, and the region around the Twin Cities. Smaller cities — Peoria, for instance, or Grand Rapids — are getting in on this act. A well-financed program is trying to leverage the strengths of Detroit and southeastern Michigan, possibly using the Detroit airport as the fulcrum.

Some regional efforts span state lines — a trend that absolutely must continue, considering how little sense most of these out-dated political borders made in a globalized world. The Organization on Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris is trying to conceive of the Milwaukee-Chicago-northern Indiana conurbation as one coherent region. The Intellectual Property Institute, centred on the Quad Cities in Iowa, is trying to stimulate economic development in a large, 50-county area, half in Illinois and half in Iowa.

Northern Illinois University and the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater are anchoring an attempt to revive the old industrial area embracing Rockford in northern Illinois and Janesville-Racine in southern Wisconsin.

Pittsburgh, shrinking but reviving, and Cleveland, shrinking and not reviving, are talking about a "Cleveburgh" urban area, crossing the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line and embracing other struggling cities, such as Youngstown. At the same time, Cleveland is working to make common cause with its northeastern hinterland up the Lake Erie shore toward Erie, PA.

Western Michigan, including the Grand Rapids-Holland area, gets high marks for its regional work. So does the Cedar Valley region around Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Waverly, in Iowa, and, further south, the I-380 corridor between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

Wisconsin is broken into seven economic development regions -- such as Momentum West based on Eau Claire, the M-7 based on Milwaukee, and NewNorth, snaking up the Fox Valley from Fond du Lac to Green Bay. In the southwestern corner of the state, the 7 Rivers Region, based on LaCrosse, spans the Mississippi River to include parts of Iowa and Minnesota.

One of the most interesting regional projects, featured in a Chicago Council Heartland Paper on rural development, links 35 counties in southern Minnesota to the Hormel and Mayo research institutions in Austin and Rochester, to form the basis of a bioscience industry.

There are more — the animal health corridor in the Kansas City region, for instance, or the attempt to build a region around Bay City, Saginaw and Midland, in Michigan. Some seem to be taking off, others still struggling. Some are well-staffed and well-financed, others small and operating on a shoestring.

But enough has happened to draw some lessons.

First, all these regions are "natural" regions, based on a common geography or economic history. Some regions run up and down river valleys, or cluster along interstates, or share lakefronts. Some boomed together during the industrial years and have been declining together ever since, but share enough of a past to know that they also share a future.

Second, almost all these regions created themselves from within, not as a result of federal action. Some federally-financed regions, such as the WIRED regions in Indiana and Wisconsin, or the RIGs in Iowa, flourish while the federal grants are still coming in, but wilt when this funding ends: none have been able to embed themselves locally.

Instead, all are local products — and almost never the products of local governments. This makes sense. Governments exist to serve the people who elected them, not the folks next door. Maybe the Midwest needs regional governments, but it doesn't have them. Instead, it has city, state and county governments which, by their mandate, cannot think regionally. Instead, these regions are generated by other players — often business, or universities and community colleges, or research institutions, coming together to form an economic development body that spearheads the project.

Governments can't be shut out. Peoria's Heartland Partnership gives local governments a seat at the table, and the Iowa-Illinois IPI has the blessing of both state governments. But these governments aren't asked to take the lead, nor should they.

Sometimes, institutions within a region have joined hands. Iowa's community colleges are working together on job training.

In short, there's a lot going on, but with few links between the projects themselves. Perhaps this isn't necessary. In regional economic development, one size certainly does not fit all, and there's no reason for a broader Midwestern coordination of these programs.

But my experience is that almost all these projects occur in a vacuum, with little local knowledge of what's happening in other regions and little attempt to study other projects and learn from them. We need sharing of information and cross-pollination. The Chicago Council and the Global Midwest Initiative are trying to fill this gap.

This post was originally published at The Midwesterner.

2 September 2011