Midwest cities get smart about economic development

For cities, economic development is not a zero-sum game. Chicago, Milwaukee and Gary, Ind. are joining forces to drive growth.
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A train station in Chicago's Southland suburb.

For cities, economic development is not a zero-sum game. Chicago, Milwaukee and Gary, Ind. are joining forces to drive growth.

If you want to understand the global economy, look at an aerial photo of the world at night. It is, quite literally, enlightening: Unlike typical maps, delineated by so many politically drawn boundaries and pastel tones, the world after dark sheds light on what unites us, beyond the city or suburb or state in which we live.

At night, the mega-regions of our global economy — areas like greater New York, Boston and Philadelphia in the U.S., or London, Paris and Lyon in Europe — are aglow, thanks to their interconnected cities and suburbs, highways and train lines, businesses and industries.

Along the western and southern shores of Lake Michigan, you’ll see a band of light connecting Milwaukee, Wis., Chicago, and Gary, Ind. In March 2012, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a competitiveness analysis of the regional economy encompassing these three cities and their 21 surrounding counties, 470-plus suburbs and 11 million people. Their scope was informed by global investment decision-makers who view this mega-region — our region — as an economic whole.

Curiously, that’s not how we’ve traditionally seen ourselves. For many public and private sector leaders in the tri-state area this perspective — and OECD’s 300-page, tri-state review, the first analysis of its kind they’ve published on a U.S. mega-region — was a revelation, almost like seeing our region lit up, at 3,000-feet, for the first time.

Historically, we’ve bickered over stolen slices of the pie — a headquarters that moves from Milwaukee to Chicago for a tax break or a company wooed from Chicago to Indiana for similar reasons. What’s promising is that our mega-region’s leaders are starting to realize it’s not only counterproductive to snitch from a shared pie, but that we could be spending our economic development energy to bake a bigger pie to feed us all.

In July, Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee and Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary each committed to take part in a Tri-State Alliance being formed by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce to pursue strategies the OECD’s analysis recommended.

The three mayors also have begun to identify natural early wins, starting with leveraging our enviable access to Lake Michigan as our mega-region’s calling card to attract private investment in water-intensive industries. The Milwaukee Water Council — a partnership among universities, water-reliant industries such as MillerCoors, and firms like Sloan Valve Co. that provide technology and services for managing water — is actively incubating new ideas and businesses and recruiting industries. Barrett has welcomed his cohorts in Chicago and Gary to pursue similar public-private partnerships, to bring more water tech companies to the region he has dubbed the “Fresh Coast.” He emphasized to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “This is not a zero-sum game; it’s not winner take all.”

The mayors also see great promise in bringing together key stakeholders from the transportation and logistics sectors to align intermodal plans across the three states and identify top-priority investments. Location, location, location has made this region the nation’s transportation hub. We’ll only maintain this competitive advantage if we embrace a new mantra: investment, investment, investment.

Across the country, other mega-regions are already modeling smart approaches:

  • The New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Rail project will connect Hartford, Conn., and Springfield, Mass., to new business, educational and cultural opportunities along the Knowledge Corridor and in New York.
  • In Georgia, the proposed Atlanta Beltline would bring new parks, trails and transit to connect 45 neighborhoods in the city.
  • Simultaneously, the Port of Savannah is being deepened to allow larger cargo ships to reach the expanded Panama Canal, and improvements are being made at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, all to forge a competitive logistics network that will put people back to work.

Ultimately, that’s what we’re all focused on: getting our economy humming and employing people, plus keeping our infrastructure safe and efficient and our communities attractive and vibrant. In day-to-day activities, from eye-level, we sometimes forget that we’re stronger as a coordinated unit. The zero-sum mindset is anachronistic and counter-productive to economic reality.

Even as each of our cities deals with the nitty-gritty, we must continue to carve out time for the 3,000-foot discussions in order to stay relevant in a global economy. From there, we’ll more easily see the two-way and three-way wins that keep the lights burning bright in our mega-region.

This article comes to Crosscut by way of Citiwire.net, a service reporting on urban land use issues.


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