Editor’s Note-Regional Economic Development

Editor’s Note-Regional Economic Development

Others are doing it well; can the Twin Cities?

It’s 7:15 a.m. on a November Sunday morning, and a voice in the back of my head is asking why I’m not at home in a warm bed. Instead, I’m at the airport, meeting up with others before embarking on a group business trip. My ability to think at this point goes only so far as to wonder where the nearest Starbucks is located.

Within 20 minutes, everyone’s there: Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President David Olson, and about 70 other community and business leaders taking part in the ninth annual InterCity Leadership Visit, sponsored by the chambers of commerce in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Their enthusiasm wakes me up a bit as I realize they, too, could have slept in. Instead, they are eager to spend three long days in Austin, Texas, studying how to better position the Twin Cities region as the place to run a business.

Austin ranks number one among the nation’s 50 largest cities for annualized job growth after attracting 185 companies with 110,000 jobs since 2005 (17,000 jobs were added in just the last 12 months). This represents a 16.7 percent cumulative job growth rate. Job growth in the Twin Cities area, meanwhile, has lagged behind the national average since 2003, and worsened in recent years.

The greater Austin area offers close proximity to a range of companies—many that would be key customers and suppliers to businesses relocating there; great technology partnering with area universities; a welcoming and participatory regulatory environment; and other traits appealing to businesses. But such strengths are nothing without the ability to leverage and market them, something Austin started doing well six years ago.

Back then, its job growth rate was only 6 percent, ranking the area 25th in the nation for annualized job growth. Community leaders launched a regional economic development organization called Opportunity Austin and backed it with $15 million in funding. Within five years, the organization achieved the job growth mentioned above by marketing the region’s strengths, managing job retention issues, offering economic development initiatives as needed, and investing $5 million into improving the area’s primary and secondary education programs.

Austin is one of a growing number of metropolitan areas benefiting from a regionalized business development and marketing approach. Others include Kansas City and Raleigh-Durham. And it turns out the Twin Cities hopes to soon join the list.

By February 1, a new organization called the Minneapolis St. Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership (REDP) expects to have hired a CEO who will tackle a small but formidable list of first-year goals. They include developing a strategic vision for economic development for the Twin Cities region, starting a branding and marketing campaign, working on a robust retention and expansion program, and starting a pipeline for attracting businesses. (Another first-year goal will be to come up with a better name for the organization.)

Backing the new CEO will be an estimated $2.8 million budget. Funds are coming from area corporations and economic development organizations, as well as from public coffers. Organizers hope that as REDP gains traction in 2011, additional funding will be forthcoming: The money raised thus far is enough only to cover the first year or so.

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Also backing the incoming CEO will be those who have been a part of the Itasca Project Job Growth Task Force. Chaired by General Mills CEO Ken Powell and Carlson Companies Chairperson and CEO Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the task force set out 15 months ago with research partner McKinsey & Company to study factors that support job growth, and identify strategies and policies our region could employ to create, attract, and retain quality jobs. Key among their findings was the need to set up a regional economic development organization, hence the formation of REDP.

While REDP will start by getting the word out about the Twin Cities, it will soon morph into an entity that wants to drive its view of positive change in a community filled with others sharing similar aspirations. Indeed, to be successful it will need to unify leaders in a region built upon the notion that every county, city, town, village, township, and even some neighborhoods, deserve—and for the most part have—their own voice on public and economic development issues.

Austin offers a great example of what can happen when a regional economic development effort gains widespread community support. The secret to Austin’s success seems to be that its leaders agreed to prioritize their actions around one subject of crucial importance to all interests, political parties, and community groups: jobs. If a project can help generate or at least keep good jobs in the community, it’s supported.

Ideally, REDP will be able to drive an agenda that’s as successful as Austin’s; and within five years, the Twin Cities will be hosting groups looking for ways to improve and grow a region’s economy.