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Economy & Business

Visiting business leaders preach the gospel of regionalism

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 14, 2011 - If St. Louis area business and government leaders needed any more reasons to embrace the gospel of regional cooperation to boost economic development, they got a powerful sermon on Tuesday: Other regions already are way out front.

That was the lesson taught by economic development experts from Kansas City, Nashville and Oklahoma City. At a session at the Missouri Botanical Garden, they hammered home the point that intramural turf battles can't do anything but hurt a metropolitan area's efforts to attract businesses from an outside world that is focused on a much larger picture. (Click here for an archived video of the conference.)

As Janet M. Miller, chief economic development and marketing officer for the Nashville area chamber of commerce, put it:

"Fighting is nothing but risk, and risk is the enemy of economic development."

Added Robert J. Marcusse, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council: "We have to approach what we do as a region. We can't do it any other way."

Marcusse pointed out that in the 18-county region that his group represents, the reality of living and working in a variety of jurisdictions is hit home by the fact that you can literally straddle State Line Road and have one foot in Missouri, the other in Kansas. So anyone from outside the area who is considering moving to Kansas City can't be bothered with a hodgepodge of bickering governments. They need a single point of entry, Marcusse said, one that brings clarity, not confusion and contention.

Robin Roberts Krieger, executive vice president for economic development for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, said that working together also helps bring the focus to what really should be the first goal for anyone trying to recruit new companies or grow existing ones: "What does the customer want?"

For groups like the ones they lead, Krieger and the others said the answer to that all-important question includes a one-stop shop, where outsiders can get the information and assistance that they need; a willingness to do the work but not necessarily get a lot of credit; and a strong public-private partnership where governments and business executives each do what they do best to help a region grow.

"Economic development is the original team sport," Miller said.

She pointed out that in 1989, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about how badly Nashville was being left behind by other areas and was going to be what she called "a sleepy backwater forever."

In response, local leaders formed Partnership 2000, which has evolved into what is now Partnership 2020. It has developed intricate processes to identify, court and land new businesses, moving through stages from awareness to interest to enthusiasm to negotiation to closing the deal.

She said she was amazed, talking with St. Louis area leaders, to learn about the city-county divide -- the kind of circumstances, she added, that outsiders don't want to have to deal with.

"To a corporation sitting on the West Coast," Miller said, "what is important is St. Louis the Engine.... You don't want to bring in some customer and have them find out that when you reach the county line, activity becomes something like a hostage swap.

"Good Lord, they'll think: If they're fighting on the front end, when they are selling, what is it going to be like when we actually get in there?"

Marcusse, in Kansas City, talked in terms of "economic Darwinism," where winners may become losers and have to make basic changes if they want to become winners again, particularly in tough times like today.

"There's simply not enough to around right now," he said, "and when there's not enough to go around, competition gets a little sharper."

But, he added, that competition doesn't mean that even regions like St. Louis and Kansas City, often seen as rivals, won't benefit from working together. A robust St. Louis will help his area as well. "There can be nothing better than for this town to take off and soar," Marcusse said.

Steve Johnson, of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, responded to the three presentations, noting that "there is no such thing as one size fits all" when it comes to economic development.

He noted that the RCGA's big goal is that by 2020, the region should rank in the top 10 of the 20 largest metropolitan areas in regional vitality, economic health and creation of community wealth. It will reach that point, he added, by focusing on priorities like life sciences and aerospace; doing more targeted marketing; encouraging more startups; leveraging the area's transportation assets; and treating a talented workforce as a strategic imperative.

"We used to assume that if we had the jobs, the labor force would follow," he said. "We can't assume that any more."

Both Denny Coleman, head of the St. Louis County Economic Council, and Rodney Crim, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corp., said they took the lessons of the nearby regions to heart, and they recognize St. Louis has to work hard to catch up.

"Competition is tough," Coleman said, adding that the region has to be "as laserlike as we can" in promoting St. Louis as a whole.

Added Crim: "We know we have to compete as a united front. There are more steps to come. This is an excellent first step."

At least St. Louis doesn't have to combat one problem cited by both Krieger in Oklahoma City and Miller in Nashville -- a negative media stereotype.

For Krieger, it is the legacy of the Okies in "The Grapes of Wrath."

"One of our biggest obstacles is image," she said. "John Steinbeck did no favor for us."

And even in Nashville, where Miller said entertainment and creativity are part of what is in the region's DNA and play a big role in marketing -- "just roll out Taylor Swift and you've got a deal" -- there is also a downside.

"If you think John Steinbeck caused problems," she said, "try having 200 episodes of 'Hee Haw' playing on cable TV."

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