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Obama’s Bus Tour: Don’t Forget ‘Bottom-Up’ Job Creation

This morning President Obama begins a three-city bus tour in the Midwest. His first stops will take him to prairie communities in Minnesota where he will likely talk about such broad-stroke job-creation proposals as payroll tax relief for employees and extended unemployment benefits, all of which is welcome. 

However, while he’s out in the heartland discussing strategies to kick start growth, the president would also do well to head for the region’s cities and metropolitan areas where the majority of jobs are lost or created. And he might consider talking not just about “top-down” national approaches but also about the nation’s increasing number of “bottom-up,” regional efforts.

In Minnesota, perhaps President Obama might want to visit the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region and highlight their “metropolitan business planning” effort.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul--and the regional business planning concept which it helped pilot--exemplifies the pragmatic and increasingly bootstrap style of U.S. regions, which will be the linchpins of recovery and which have grown tired of the unhelpful posturing and rigidities of Washington.

More than two years ago, the leadership of the Twin Cities began a collaboration with Brookings’ Metro Program to develop a new approach to regional economic development.   Through dozens of meetings and dozens of new commitments, scores of the region’s business, civic, and private-sector leaders converged to apply the methodology of private-sector business planning to consolidating multiple regional plans into an integrated, and data-informed, strategy for stimulating growth.

No longer did the region’s business and political leaders want to wait for federal programmatic handouts and one-size-fits-all prescriptions. Instead, they collaborated with hundreds of others to craft the Minneapolis Saint Paul Metropolitan Business Plan to set the agenda “bottom up.” 

Under this rubric, the region created the Regional Economic Development Partnership (REDP) to integrate more than 40 economic development organizations to provide a more effective model for retaining and recruiting firms. It established a major regional “cluster” initiative to boost the region’s medical devices industry. It moved to advance Thinc.GreenMSP, an initiative to strengthen the area’s green manufacturing base and brand the region as a great place for green business. It ploughed forward on a Corridors of Opportunity project to improve access to regional opportunities by advancing the transit system, connecting land use and transit investments, maximizing community benefits, and creating new regional public/private partnerships. (This effort recently received $16 million in funding from the national philanthropic collaborative, Living Cities.) And it developed Accelerate MSP, a detailed plan to leverage the region’s core strengths to stimulate the formation and growth of new businesses across industries.

In short, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region--along with a growing number of other regions, including Northeast Ohio and the Puget Sound area--has advanced a specific homegrown challenge to federal, state, local, business, and philanthropic actors to “invest” in “bottom up” plans for economic growth (all with a firm promise of return-on-investment!). In this fashion, the region has proposed not just a way to pursue regional development but also a new approach to federal-metro relations.

President Obama should check out these doings in the Twin Cities and see what Washington can do to support them. At a time of gridlock and partisanship in the capital, practical regions haven't been waiting around to grow the economy. The White House should celebrate their efforts and try to help. In that way, Washington might affirm its support at a time when the ills of top-down business-as-usual in economic affairs have become painfully apparent.