Guest Column

We would be wise to follow in Minnesota’s footsteps

June 8, 2018
| By Lou Glazer |
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For years, Michigan Future Inc. has used Minnesota as a comparison state because it is the Great Lakes state (taking weather and the excuse that Michigan can’t be like the coasts off the table) that has enjoyed the best economic outcomes, by far.

The difference in economic outcomes between Minnesota and Michigan can largely be explained by the superior performance of metro Minneapolis compared to metro Detroit and metro Grand Rapids. Metropolitan Minneapolis is the Great Lakes’ most prosperous region, with per capita income more than $8,000 higher than metro Detroit and more than $10,000 higher than metro Grand Rapids.

Minneapolis, the nation’s 16th-largest region, is considered by many to be one of the best places to live in the country. The Twin Cities rank at or near the top among the nation’s large metro areas in a variety of livability measures, including per capita income, proportion of adults who work, educational attainment, transit, quality of government services and amenities such as parks and bike trails.

Why should we in Michigan care? Our state’s metro areas, including Detroit and Grand Rapids, are striving to achieve many of the results that metro Minneapolis has accomplished. Michigan’s business, governmental and community leaders talk almost daily about the need to improve education, build transit, revitalize urban neighborhoods and produce higher-paying jobs. Metro Minneapolis offers a roadmap to get there.

Michigan Future’s new report, “Regional Collaboration Matters: How Metro Minneapolis has forged one of the wealthiest and most livable metropolitan areas in the United States,” is a deep dive into the choices metro Minneapolis has made over the last 40 years that have transformed it from a troubled patchwork of communities into the Great Lakes’ most prosperous region. It details metro Minneapolis’ recipe for success:

1. Talent as THE economic priority: Some regions of the country compete for jobs and investment by cutting taxes and easing regulations on business. Others tout a low cost of living, nonunion labor and plenty of warm sunshine to lure workers and businesses.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, talent development has long been the key ingredient in growing a metro economy that is one of the most vibrant in the country. Metro Minneapolis leadership understood decades ago that the regions with the highest education attainment — particularly those with a four-year degree or more — would be the most prosperous and have the most good-paying jobs.

2. Regional collaboration: An elusive goal in many metropolitan areas is on steroids in the Twin Cities. The seven-county Minneapolis metro area has been providing key governmental services, including wastewater treatment and transit, regionally for decades through what experts say is a unique entity called the Metropolitan Council.

Another unique aspect of regional collaboration in the Twin Cities region is a tax-base-sharing program that requires nearly 200 local entities to share a portion of property tax dollars generated by industrial and commercial growth in the metro area. The program redistributes hundreds of millions of dollars a year among communities, schools and special taxing districts in an effort to even the tax burden across the metro area, reduce competition among communities for commercial and industrial development, and ease pressure to develop land better suited for recreation and open space.

3. Transit: Metro Minneapolis features one of the best transit operations in the country, a system known as Metro Transit that provides more than 80 million rides a year using buses, trains and vans. But transit in the Twin Cities is about more than getting people to where they want or need to go. Many, led by business leaders, see transit as a crucial element in maintaining and growing the metro area’s economic vitality.

4. Welcoming to all: Including immigrants and the LGBTQ community is a key component of the metro Minneapolis economic prosperity strategy.

5. Business leadership: What may be the most striking difference between metro Minneapolis and Michigan’s regions is the role business leadership has played in making this public-investment-driven regional agenda happen. Most, if not all, major metropolitan areas have business organizations that promote the economic well-being of their regions. But the Itasca Project serving Minnesota’s Twin Cities is different from just about any such organization in the country. This group — launched in 2003 — of more than 60 corporate chief executive officers and community leaders spends little time on traditional business concerns, such as tax rates and government regulations.

Rip Rapson, then the president of the McKnight Foundation (now the president of the Kresge Foundation in Troy), was a key convener of business leaders that led to the Itasca Project. He recalls that from its inception, the CEOs determined “the building blocks of a healthy, vibrant civic life were core to their businesses.”

Their initial priority list: Creating a regional transit plan and a funding mechanism; developing a funding model for early childhood development; addressing health disparities; and improving the patent transfer process between the university systems and the private sector. Today, the Itasca CEOs are focused on closing employment gaps between whites and people of color, and helping its members develop more diverse, inclusive workforces.

What the Twin Cities have accomplished hasn’t been easy or without controversy. But the results are impressive and should serve as a model for how Michigan and its regions can return to high prosperity.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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