Greater MSP: What About the Partners?

Greater MSP: What About the Partners?

Greater MSP needs to clarify its results.

It’s been two years since the new regional economic development organization Greater MSP was founded, established by area leaders via the Itasca Group to accelerate job growth and capital investment in the greater Twin Cities. Its subtitle is the Minneapolis Saint Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership. Note the last word in that title.

Today, it’s hard to discern what the nonprofit has uniquely accomplished in terms of attracting or retaining jobs and capital investments, how well it’s partnering versus doing its own thing, and how it’s spent an estimated $5 million thus far. Financials for the organization are only available for 2011, when it was still hiring staff and setting up shop. And its 2012 annual results announcement in November trumpeting its recent accomplishments left things even foggier, while prompting ire among some who lead smaller, much longer-established economic development organizations.

Greater MSP was formed because those groups weren’t playing together to market the Twin Cities as a region to potential employers. While other major cities are succeeding in wooing jobs and retaining employers by taking a regionalized approach, we’ve gotten stuck in marketing individual cities or counties and tend to compete with each other to win tax revenues. And we have way too many cooks in the kitchen.

Greater MSP is supposed to serve as master chef, unifying and partnering with nearly 100 economic development entities in the Twin Cities metro area. There are at least 55 chambers of commerce; several cities and counties have economic development directors. And there are more than a dozen other entities to partner with, ranging from the Asian Economic Development Association to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Each organization believes in the intrinsic value of its services. Yet several could easily be consolidated or closed, and many spend more time worrying about their own needs than those of the businesses they’re supposed to be serving. Meanwhile, some who are truly active in business development wonder if Greater MSP—whose $4.5 million annual budget is larger than almost everyone else’s—will simply take ownership of initiatives and play geographic kingmaker, while tapping funding that they would have received.

Against this backdrop, November’s announcement didn’t help. Greater MSP reported that its annual results included 30 projects expected to stimulate more than 4,000 new or retained jobs, and more than $440 million in capital investments. While saying these projects “were coordinated with state and regional partners,” Greater MSP also seemed to take credit for leading them. But it turns out that it only led/did most the work on about 10, according to a source close to the organization. It had a hand in others, but they were led and/or accomplished primarily by partner organizations.

Even these 10 deals lack specifics. Only three have been identified publicly, and only one is significant in terms of jobs and capital investment: Polaris’ decision to add up to 300 jobs and invest $22 million in its R&D facility in Wyoming, Minnesota, over the next three years.

In a Greater MSP promotional video, Polaris CEO Scott Wine credits the group for driving the effort, in response to his phone call.“They’re so effective at being able to navigate the system and make sure you take advantage of all the opportunities to grow here in Minnesota,” he says. Yet insiders say Polaris planned this expansion on its own, and financial incentives from the state, city, Chisago County, and others made it happen.

Part of the issue is the definition of “Greater MSP.” It’s an organization (the definition I’m using here), a region, and a group of organizations partnering for a common cause. Greater MSP CEO Michael Langley says he was referring to the broader group.

“I can only say that it is never our intention or our goal to take credit for projects,” he said in an e-mail. Rather, he aims to credit the companies that are investing in a project and the community partners directly engaged in the deals, he says. “As a new organization doing this work at a regional level, it will take some time, and a lot of projects will occur, before our region gets used to the fact that it is important to celebrate successes as a region.”

Agreed. But the people who lead the charge on such projects should receive credit as well, especially when they, too, need to show funders a healthy ROI. Greater MSP has the staff, budget, and resources to do such marketing; many of its partners do not.

Nor does it need to claim so much success to justify itself: It needs to attract or retain about 450 jobs averaging $50,000 a year to pay for itself in tax receipts within two years. After that, the recurring tax receipts become like an annuity. I’m told Greater MSP is already performing above this threshold, but again, where’s the proof?

I’m a big supporter of the Greater MSP concept for reasons I wrote about before Langley was hired. We must regionalize and eventually consolidate all the individual efforts around town. And it sounds like Langley is making progress setting up his teams, infrastructure, and operational capabilities; marketing the Twin Cities; and planting seeds that are expected to sprout into big projects. But the organization needs to improve how it tracks and measures its results—which, at press time, it says it was working on (as well as a three-year plan).

“We truly are trying to be a partnership, bringing together everyone and getting us all to go in the same direction,” says Mike Brown, Greater MSP’s vice president of marketing and communications.

“We came in one year ago and said ‘We’re open for business.’ Over the last year, we had some things that didn’t go as well as planned and some growing pains,” he says. “We have to prove [in 2013] that we can consistently do this work and show that we’re not just trying to take advantage of the early wins.”

Brown says Greater MSP is keenly aware of concerns in the economic development circles. “There are a lot of rivalries in the community here, and we’re trying to get past that, as well as a public skepticism along the lines of ‘Why do you need this organization when there are others doing economic development and marketing?’” he says. “People were willing to give us the benefit of the doubt, and we have to prove it now.”

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