Regionalism Run Rampant

[This article originally appeared in the July 2011 edition of Madison Magazine. You can see the original here.]

My team and I are privileged to work with cities and companies across North America that are bent on staying-or becoming-magnets for great talent. We’ve worked in large cities like Nashville and small towns like Johnstown, Pennsylvania. No matter the size of the community, I’ve noticed a trend that’s both promising and problematic: regionalism.

Regionalism occurs when two or more cities, towns,villages, counties and so forth, decide to work together, usually on economic development. The rationale seems so simple, so intuitive: together, we can do more. There are also financial incentives: many federal and state grants require cities and counties to work together to apply for or receive funds. But like all good ideas, execution is what matters most, and I see some communities suffering from Regionalism Run Rampant. It is a precursor to the epidemic of Diluted Strategy and its even more deadly cousin, Disengaged Leadership.

To illustrate Regionalism Run Rampant let’s use the fictitious city of Springfield—as in “The Simpsons,” not the Land of Lincoln. For our purposes, let’s say that Springfield is the largest city in a five-county area, hosts the majority of jobs, is home to the majority of the population and has most of the region’s political and capital power.

Symptoms of Regionalism Run Rampant include:

  • “Springfield” never stands alone in a sentence, either written or spoken. It must always be referred to as “Greater Springfield,” “the Springfield area,” “the Springfield region” or some other name that states the obvious—that Springfield has additional, albeit smaller, towns and suburbs around it.
  • Suggestions that capital be invested in downtown Springfield are met with silence from other regional partners. Their thought bubble-if you could read it-would say, “Here we go again … giving all the resources to that big oaf.”
  • Suburbs not even in the Springfield labor shed are at the table as part of a regional strategy.
  • A capital campaign for regional economic development touts the region. Although the city of Springfield and Springfield’s employers are the major contributors (by percent of dollars donated), the money from the capital campaign is expected to be spread equally around the region.

Regionalism Run Rampant was taking shape in northeast Ohio earlier this year when a top funder of the regional economic development initiative—the Cleveland Foundation—sharply decreased its contribution. The rationale? The foundation wanted to ensure that their donors’ money was helping Cleveland first. Without a strong Cleveland, they argued, the region is weakened.And they were right.

I’m all for regionalism when it honors the unique strengths and assets of all the partners. But I choke when I see regionalism used to equalize all the partners. Like children, regional partners are not all gifted in the same way. You don’t make ALL your children take piano lessons (unless you’re the tiger mom). You assess each child’s talents and put each child in the way of further training and experiences that will help all of them become their best selves.

The same thing is true in a region. At its best, regionalism sets the table for trust and collaboration among partners. This is what John Hickenlooper did when he was mayor of Denver. He informally gathered together all the region’s mayors on a regular basis to talk shop. He was intentionally laying a foundation of trust among his peers in the region. Without this, I doubt that Denver would have commuter rail today.

Taken one step further, regionalism may even identify strategic priorities for growth. Thrive, the region’s economic development partnership, has plans to do exactly that here in the Madison region.

So the riddle of regionalism is this: how do regions treat all partners as equals, while noting that all partners have different assets, and some have far more? And how can regional efforts accurately reflect the role that a strong central city plays in a healthy region?

After all, you can’t be a suburb to nowhere.

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