Thursday, December 22, 2011

December 22, 2011

Below is a column from the Citistates Group, the organization Neal Pierce founded years ago to advance the notion of regions as economic engines from his national platform. Doug Henton, one of our coaches, is a member. As it is so timely for our work, not just in Fresno but in our region and state, I hope you will take a look at it. The lessons learned across the country mirror ours. Economic prosperity and opportunity are a shared responsibility and no one sector can advance them alone. A way to align nontraditional allies is citizenship. When people act as citizens first, single and special interests second, extraordinary things happen.

Nearly every day this week there has been another announcement about Fresno getting a federal grant or philanthropic investment. The SC2 (Strong Cities, Strong Communities) commitment from the federal government to the City of Fresno is paying off. We demonstrated we are investment worthy. Now it’s time for us to prove it with results across all indicators. This will require unity, alignment and relentless discipline. We have one of the critical elements many communities do not have—“a visionary elected public sector leader willing to cross political divides and work with nontraditional allies for the common good”—Mayor Ashley Swearengin. But for her, SC2 would have stayed east of the Mississippi!

Studying Regionalism on a Palatial Estate

What can you learn in two days and two 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. In late October 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 Neal Peirce, 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. Plus Southern California’s multimodal logistics solution to moving goods in and out of the L.A. and Long Beach ports.

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.
The symposium also clarified some new concepts for me:
• 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. We will disagree about a lot, but I think we can all agree that jobs, trade and investment are key priorities.
• 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 her 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 stories of success and failure are as important (if not more important) than conceptual models.
• Business can’t do it alone; it needs a strong public sector partner. I’m not 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 mentioned dynamic individual players from the public and private sectors.

I’m not sure I picked up any IQ points from all the big brains in the room, but I did leave the Citistates symposium with a renewed conviction in the important role chambers of commerce must play as regional leaders and conveners.
Ian Scott is vice president for communications and networks of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives.

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