TCB Q&A: Itasca Project Chair Lynn Casey
Lynn Casey serves as chair of the Itasca Project

TCB Q&A: Itasca Project Chair Lynn Casey

The civic alliance is broadening its capacity to have a bigger impact on addressing Minnesota problems.

In multiple New York Times columns, Minnesota native Tom Friedman has lauded the work of the Itasca Project. The Twin Cities-based organization defines itself as “an employer-led civic alliance focused on building a thriving economy and expanding prosperity for all.” Despite its track record of tackling some of Minnesota’s most vexing social and economic problems, Lynn Casey, Itasca Project chair, says the organization’s leadership wanted to ask hard questions about its future as it approaches its 20th anniversary in 2023.

Itasca’s modus operandi has been forming a couple of task forces per year, each typically led by a corporate executive. Itasca examines challenges such as educational attainment, housing affordability, and regional competitiveness. McKinsey & Co. staff have supported the volunteer task forces, and well-researched reports have been released with policy recommendations.

Casey, retired chair of Padilla, says key community leaders now are pressing Itasca to not only be more visible, but also to have greater impact. Itasca’s founders didn’t envision a long lifespan for the civic alliance, so they attached the word “project” to the name, never filed paperwork to become a freestanding nonprofit, and have operated informally with a team of business and community leaders guiding the activities.

“We’re at a point now where more is expected of Itasca,” Casey says. “We really do need more oversight, more accountability to the people who are contributing finances and time.”

By the end of 2022, Casey anticipates an executive leadership council will be established to govern the work of Itasca. It also will get a permanent office location and hire full-time staff. “We’ll have a program manager who will be staffing task forces,” Casey says. “We’ll have a managing director who will be figuring out how to engage the community beyond task forces, whether those are forums or other kinds of convenings.”

Itasca will be headquartered in downtown St. Paul at Greater MSP, the regional economic development organization that was created as a result of Itasca research. Casey avoids using the term “merger” in relation to Greater MSP. “Itasca needs to stay a separate unit,” she says. Itasca is developing an integration arrangement with Greater MSP, but she says it will not be absorbed by the organization.

It will have access to Greater MSP communications staff. Itasca’s work is “still a mystery to most people,” Casey says.

Itasca attracts high-level corporate leaders to work in a nonpartisan fashion with their counterparts in the public and nonprofit sectors, Casey says. Collin Barr, a regional president of Ryan Cos., has been a leader of Itasca’s affordable housing initiative, while Tim Welsh, a U.S. Bancorp executive, has been one of three chairs of a children’s development task force.

Itasca takes on issues when its leaders think they can make a difference. Casey’s been involved since shortly after the organization was founded. Casey also serves on six corporate and nonprofit boards. It’s her second act after Padilla. “We do have to retire into something versus retire from something,” she notes.

Q: Itasca has weighed in on many issues. Share an example in which it spurred positive change.
A: The gas tax in 2008 is a really good example of how Itasca can work and influence, but also how Itasca could never operate alone. Itasca uses a task force format to create a report that is compelling and very fact-based. [Itasca’s] report became the basis for a lot of people, especially the Minnesota Chamber, to get behind reliable, consistent funding for transportation and transit. Itasca’s report looked at how other states were funding transportation. They were getting ahead of Minnesota. Some people within Itasca volunteered to have very off-the-record, candid, non-lobbying conversations with some of the elected officials to just build relationships. I have to believe that showing the business face to elected officials, maybe in a different way than businesses show up at the Capitol, helped move the needle, [or] at least opened the aperture for consideration.

Q: The “First 1,000 Days” is a recent initiative of the Itasca Project. What does it entail?
A: It talks about all the ways that a business leader, a company, and their HR team can make it easier for young caregivers to do right by their kids even as they work full-time jobs. This is the brain science that the University of Minnesota is deeply involved in. Basically 80% of the brain is developed by the time somebody is three. Not only was there an Itasca report, in this case there is also an employer toolkit. It talks about ways a company can make it easier for young caregivers as they work full-time jobs.

Q: What factors drove Itasca’s integration with Greater MSP?
A: We got feedback that was really important. One of the pieces was Itasca is more important than ever. We need to keep the business community engaged and we need to have more opportunities to help them solve problems with other sector leaders. We were limited in our ability to be able to provide involvement because we were a virtual organization. We heard from participants: “You know, the reports are great, the recommendations are awesome, but you guys need to do a better job of executing and finding partners quicker who can actually do the work. Your job is to catalyze action.” Greater MSP has done a remarkable job of taking an idea and actually driving action. We can borrow some of their playbook.

Q: After your tenure as chair ends in a few months, do you expect to remain involved?
A: Nobody ever leaves Itasca. You can get in, but you can’t get out. We form personal relationships. Those are really important and it’s hard for people to walk away from that. I’m sure I’m going to be involved in some capacity. But I also really think that we need to make way for new leaders to engage.

Q: Many baby boomers have been leaders within the Itasca Project. How do you broaden that leadership base?
A: We talk a lot about who is going to be our next generation of leaders. How do we get to them? Do they know that we have a tradition of expecting our leaders to step up? And how can we systematize that in a way that brings out the best in those people for themselves for leadership development but also for the good of the community?

Q: Are there particular actions that you would like to see from Itasca?
A: Yes. We are a different community than we were decades ago when the lore, if not the fact, was that the founding fathers of our corporate community got together and talked about how the community leaders could live up to their East Coast colleagues. You were given your marching orders. That doesn’t work today. A lot of these companies are global. Their executives have very limited time. But we are still known around the country as a place where there’s very active civic involvement of [business] leaders. We all know, on the inside, that we could be doing more. We could be engaging more people. So what I’d like to do is build that civic leadership muscle.

This article appears in the October/November 2022 issue of Twin Cities Business.

Read more from this issue