If you're a mayor or business leader in a city or town these days, you have to worry about not just the health of the local economy but the snapshot of the entire region. That's the emerging consensus across the country from local elected officials, businesses, and policymakers who want to boost the fortunes of both rural and urban areas. It's not enough anymore to focus on the fate of a single zip code, if one's neighbors do not share in the prosperity and feel compelled to engage in competition for jobs and businesses.
"Regional economic-development strategies," as wonky as the term sounds, means that geographical areas work together to attract the best workers and companies, develop new economic sectors, or build on a region's existing strengthens. In practice, that can look like two major cities cooperating to build up the pipeline of skilled workers in the 22-county area between Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky. It can look like rural towns in Iowa developing a local farming economy, or it can mean trying to transform Phoenix—hard-hit by the Great Recession's housing downturn—into a hub for research and development. These represent just a handful of examples of regions, working together, to ensure they're operating as strong economies.
With these criteria in mind, we've reviewed dozens of programs dedicated to regional economic development. Here are the 10 we believe are the most innovative.
Kentucky's Workforce Experiment: Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky have more than 100,000 residents involved in advanced manufacturing work, thanks to the presence of Toyota, Ford, GE, and roughly 1,600 spin-off businesses in the region. But starting in late 2010, the mayors of the two cities became worried about maintaining a pipeline of skilled manufacturing workers. So, as part of a regional economic initiative, they worked with local businesses and the community-college system to create an apprenticeship program to train people, give them associate's degrees, and band together the 22 counties between the two cities.
See National Journal's in-depth profile of the Kentucky project here.
Milwaukee's Water Technology: Can the city of Milwaukee become a leading hub for water-technology? That was certainly the hope of local officials and manufacturers roughly seven years ago, when it created the Milwaukee Water Council and turned old rail yards into an industrial park for water-related companies and research. Two local universities also now offer programs in freshwater sciences and legal issues, with a focus on—what else?—water.
Minneapolis-St. Paul's Unique Tax Plan: The Twin Cities region is known as one of the most affordable areas in the country, housing-wise, with high college graduation rates, high median earnings, and a great concentration of Fortune 500 companies. The area has helped to fuel this economic boost (and remained reasonably priced), in part, thanks to a law that allows the cities and surrounding suburbs to share in their commercial tax revenues, so that even the region's poorest areas still benefit from the presence of the business community.
New York's Applied Science Program: New York didn't just want to be known as the capital of Wall Street in the years following the Great Recession, so the city decided instead to focus on building up its high-tech sector. One of the first steps was to embark on a project to build a graduate school for applied sciences and engineering on Roosevelt Island, in conjunction with Cornell University. The goal: to help to train the next generation of tech workers outside of the bastion of Silicon Valley.
Oklahoma City: Oklahoma City is hailed as one of the country's most livable regions, thanks to the forethought of city-planners more than two decades ago. Following the oil busts of the 1980s and 1990s, local officials embarked on three projects to transform the downtown, build a trolley line, and renovate public schools (all voted on by residents and funded through taxes).
Phoenix as a Hub for Research and Development: The city of Phoenix, synonymous with the bursting of the national real-estate bubble, does not want to be known just for this legacy. Instead, the region is now trying to transform itself as a place known for research and development by building off its existing aerospace and defense industries to, hopefully, become a leading mid-sized city for software and engineering. It's a huge goal, with a five- to 10-year time frame, but it shows the pro-activeness of the greater Phoenix area in charting its economic future.
See National Journal's in-depth profile of Phoenix here.
Pottawattamie County, Iowa's Farming Renaissance: For years, Pottawattamie County has been known for its corn and soybeans crops. Yet back in 2005 and 2006, a band of local farmers worked together to think through the future of farming in Southwest Iowa. To keep the local farming community diverse and strong, they decided to encourage some farmers to grow local veggies and fruit instead of just commodity crops. Since then, the county has collaborated with towns and cities beyond its borders to boost the reach of its local farmers. It has also worked to train the next generation of farmers and to help existing farms with small-business coaching.
See National Journal's in-depth profile of this southwest Iowa farm movement here.
Seattle's Smart-Buildings Project: One goal of the Seattle smart-building project is to reduce the use of energy in downtown buildings by 25 percent. The city is trying to accomplish this through a pilot project, which uses smart technology in a handful of local buildings. Smart technology uses sensors, data, and other analytics to track a building's energy use and hopefully, to help make it more efficient. To make sure this technology becomes more prevalent throughout the region, the local community-college system now offers a new degree in sustainable-building technology to train the next generation of tech-savvy, energy-conscious building managers.
See National Journal's in-depth profile of Seattle's smart-building initiative here.
Utah's Export Economy: Ask average Americans about Utah, and they stereotypically think of the 2002 Winter Olympics or headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But, the state also wants to be known as a powerhouse when it comes to local exports. Five years ago, less than 1 percent of Utah's businesses sold goods abroad. In 2014, that number jumped to just under 4 percent. Utah companies now sell goods to Canada, China, Japan, Taiwan, Germany, Thailand, India, Mexico, Switzerland, Belgium, and Singapore, among others.
See National Journal's in-depth profile of the export economy here.
Walla Walla's Wine Economy: The rural area of Walla Walla, Washington, had an unemployment rate of higher than 7 percent throughout the 1990s (despite the tech boom at that time and a national unemployment rate of 4 percent). To combat this problem, local officials decided to look to the area's agricultural sector as a guide and begin to harvest grapes to make wine. The local community college then started a program to train more workers for this fledgling industry.
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