Return To Regionalism Focus

April 27, 2008
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Little more than 10 years ago, former Beverage America CEO Jim Brooks created the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, providing regional economic statistics and future projections (now coming to bear) that shocked his business fellows throughout the region into action. While individual governmental units were slow to catch on, let alone join in, the "flat world" economic issues that have slammed Michigan and the region were a cruel wake-up call.

A decade ago Brooks defined the "metro tri-plex" and natural region that most immediately includes Ludington to the north, Benton Harbor, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek to the south, and extends east to Lansing and north to Traverse City. The recent investment of Michigan State University in a medical school in Grand Rapids is one very large point in what can be accomplished, and the Van Andel Institute redraws what anyone believes to be "boundaries" almost on a weekly basis. Brooks' initial work even extended to the Upper Midwest Super Region, including Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and west to St. Louis, north to Milwaukee. It is interesting to note that World Affairs Council of Western Michigan speaker Richard Longworth just two weeks ago told area residents that this region's economic "critical mass" is linked around the lake, through Chicago and north into Wisconsin. Longworth is the author of "Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism." The Business Journal believes area business o
wners already are invested in the Super Region and ply it as often as the global economy.

Having spent a decade cheering the regional planning opportunities provided through the Strategic Alliance, the Business Journal again this year laments the group's seemingly singular focus on employment sourcing rather than the bigger picture of regional identity in global markets.

It is true that businesses in this region are rightfully concerned about recruitment and retention issues. It is true that the big win of a WIRED grant to focus on education, training and retention has been helpful. The Business Journal suggests, however, that taking one's eye off the ball of regional development efforts in the long term defeats the very purpose of the Alliance. The federal funds provided through the WIRED grant will expire in a year. It would not behoove the Alliance to focus time and energy on fundraising challenges to replace those dollars, but to focus on the funds necessary to get back on task and continue those regional efforts, now well beyond state lines.

An impressive array of partners has been brought together, especially from the five counties in the immediate vicinity of Holland (or Muskegon or Grand Rapids). Those partners have been given the tools of connectedness and valuable resources through the WIRED effort. It should be their challenge to keep this single piece of economic success active as the grant expires, most especially Grand Valley State University and intermediate school districts with multi-jurisdictional addresses.

The work through the grant can and should stand as just one small example of what can be accomplished when regional cooperation is the goal. It is no longer a learning curve, even for governmental units.

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