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In recent years, “regionalism” has become a Midwestern buzzword. But for most of that time, that’s all it was—a buzzword, a politically correct remedy for some of the region’s ills, without much evidence that it was really happening.

As one of the drum-beaters for regionalism, I’m beginning to think that the idea is sinking in, with policy-makers and politicians, and may be going beyond talk to action. If so, it’s a sign that the Midwest is getting serious about reversing its decades-long decline and joining the 21st century.

This is one of the good things I recently took away from our Global Midwest Initiative’s regional conference in Cleveland. The theme of the conference was new energy—how the Midwest can make the transition from old, fossil-fueled energy to renewable energy—and how to pay for it. Both speakers and attendees brought a high level of expertise to the conference and produced some solid roadmaps toward future progress.

Regionalism is basically the ability of individual units—cities, states, schools and colleges, counties—to work together toward a greater common good. Chuck Peters, a publisher in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says that regions are “nested in natural economies.” In other words, they are groupings of people with something in common and the ability, if they work together, to leverage their assets into something more than the sum of their parts.

In the Midwest, this could mean the whole Midwestern region, from western Pennsylvania through Iowa. It could mean the eight or 10 upper Midwestern states working together to build a high-speed rail network, or a Midwestern caucus in Congress, or Midwestern offices in foreign cities like Shanghai, or a Midwestern drive to promote certain industries, like bioscience and energy.

But there are other, smaller regions that make sense. These are regions linking towns and institutions along a natural corridor, like the Rock Valley in Wisconsin and Illinois or I-380 between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. There are natural urban regions spanning state borders—Cleveland and Pittsburgh, for instance, or the Chicago region running from Milwaukee through northern Indiana up to Grand Rapids and western Michigan. There are industrial regions: Auto Alley embracing northern Ohio and Indiana and southeastern Michigan is the obvious example. There are regions bringing together old factory towns that are too small to compete on their own but could gain a lot through combining their strengths: Illinois, Indiana and Ohio are loaded with such potential regions.

You’d think regionalism would come naturally to the Midwest. The entire region rose together in the 19th century as one economy, based on heavy industry and farming. Most of the small factory and farm towns began life as satellites and suppliers of the great industrial cities like Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit. The region has been declining together for the past four decades, as farms consolidated and factory jobs went away. You’d think we’d get the idea that we’re all in the same boat. But until now, that hasn’t happened. The Midwest has been fatally balkanized, shattered into political bits and pieces, with neighboring towns competing for the same industries, with tiny school districts refusing to consolidate, with parts of natural regions that are virtually unaware that the other parts exist.

Part of this can be put down to our native independence. Part probably stems from our roots in Jeffersonian democracy, with tiny counties and townships that may have made democratic sense when they were formed 200 years ago but exist today only to keep thousands of commissioners and clerks employed.

Part, I’d say, is the result of that long-running economic decline. Some of the most bitter battles and ethnic wars in the world occur in the poorest areas, where there isn’t enough to go around and everyone has to scrap for everything they can get. In places like this, neighbors are the most visible enemies. Cooperation and coordination may make economic sense in these situations, but they are no match for ornery human nature.

So we don’t have much going for us. Which is why the recent sprouts of regionalism are so surprising—and so encouraging.

Regionalism became one of the themes of the Cleveland conference, although we didn’t plan it that way. John Fernandez, an assistant secretary of commerce, stressed regionalism, both geographic and interdisciplinary—getting cities, universities and companies to work together, as in Akron, to make good things happen. Richard Stuebi, the founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, closed the conference with a ringing plea for regional cooperation to build a Midwestern energy network. Frank Samuel, who wrote a proposal for the Chicago Council on a Midwestern venture capital fund, said that the Midwest has the assets—universities, researchers, grants, patents—but lacks the money to put them together to create industries. Other speakers noted that Midwestern states aren’t competing with each other anymore, but with bigger, stronger competitors on the coasts or overseas.

Samuel reported that Europeans are setting up regions on the theory that, to be competitive in this global economy, a region has to embrace at least 20 million people. Hence, he said, the new regional cooperation between Lyon, Marseilles, Barcelona, Milan and Turin, to the point that they are driving a tunnel through the Alps to bring northern Italy and southern France together.

So the buzz around this buzzword is getting louder. More important, things are happening. Cleveland and Pittsburgh are talking about a common future. The southeastern Michigan region around Detroit is working together to build a post-auto future. Around the Midwest, RIG (regional innovation grant) programs in Iowa and WIRED (Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development) programs in Indiana are trying to forge multi-county regions. These are federally-funded programs but, in southern Minnesota, the 38-county Regional Competitiveness Project is trying a more grassroots approach. Fernandez cited new cooperation in the Rock Valley, between Rockford in northern Illinois and Beloit/Janesville in southern Wisconsin.

The Midwestern Governors Association, until now no center of collaboration, seems to be catching on. The governors, having sponsored a program to create energy-related jobs in the Midwest and educate workers for these jobs, is about to come out with a plan to encourage investment in energy.

There’s more happening and more to come. It’s safe to say that almost none of this would have happened five years ago. The recession gets some of the credit: if hard times ferment rivalry and hostility, as noted above, they can also pressure leaders to think fresh. After 40 years of decline and two years of economic crisis, these leaders are realizing that what they’ve been doing isn’t working. The idea seems to be dawning that people in the next town or the next state may have some answers, and it’s time to get together. iBi

Reprinted with permission. Originally posted on October 20, 2010
on The Midwesterner blog at
globalmidwest.typepad.com.

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