Twin Cities: We may be more average than exceptional

December is time to take stock, to make the year-end assessment, to wonder how am I doing. To reflect on how I stack up. Introspection is doubly important in a rugged economy.

What’s true in personal lives and in business is true also for the places we live. That got me thinking about remarks Curt Johnson delivered to a large delegation from Denver visiting Minneapolis-St. Paul earlier this fall. I didn’t hear his speech, but when I read his words later I thought them the best self-assessment of our hometown I had ever read.

Johnson chaired the Metropolitan Council in the mid 1990s and makes his living studying and writing about cities for the Web network Citistates.

He is the most lucid commentator I know, possessing an ultra dry wit, a gentle way with words, a probing mind driven by results not ideology, and an uncanny ability to distill complex things.

In his speech to the Denverites, he described our legendary lakes and our outsized devotion to bicycles, golf and theater. We are first in a lot of things, he said, but second in more. (He mentioned the Super Bowl, but made no allusion to Gene McCarthy’s wicked crack about one of us — perhaps all of us — having the soul of a vice president.)

Johnson described a complacent civic culture that has spent the last dozen years “admiring our problems” while others are eating our lunch. Only recently has it begun to sink in that we’re in competition with other metro areas, he said, and that we may be more average than exceptional.

Most importantly, he said, we are:

• Lagging the national average in the growth of personal income and jobs.

• Continuing to fall behind in transportation.

• Witnessing our education advantage slipping away.

We’ve begun to realize that we have problems, he said, and we wish somebody would do something. “We don’t know yet whether this will inaugurate a new chapter in our civic history,” he told the visitors, “but the rough drafts are promising.”

Johnson’s remarks deserve to be read in full.  He revised them slightly and offered them to Minnpost, and can be read here.

Metro competition
Such “regional” assessments become salient as we begin to understand something that our political system isn’t geared for: Metropolitan areas — not cities or states — are the basic unit of economic competition in the nation and world. As economists like Richard Florida and urban scholars like Bruce Katz continue to point out, large metropolitan areas produce the lion’s share of national wealth, and they are at each other’s throats to attract talent, prosperity and livability.

Minneapolis-St. Paul has been late to the game. In a series called “Compete or Retreat,” published by the Star Tribune in 2000, my colleague Dave Hage and I made a strong case that our region had been “too smug too long.” About the same time, Mark Yudof, then president of the University of Minnesota, tried to rally a metropolitan effort. Then, in 2002, the Chambers of Commerce in Minneapolis and St. Paul joined a national “parade” in which delegations, typically composed of 40 to 100 business and civic leaders, including mayors and other top elected officials, visit competing metro areas to assess comparative strengths and weaknesses. Local delegations have since traveled every year to a competing city, eight trips in all.

Learning from others
These “Inter-city Leadership Visits” have focused on (in order) Denver, Seattle, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Diego, Toronto, Atlanta and, most recently, Charlotte. Meanwhile, an average of two or three delegations stop here each year.

These are not junkets but intensive study sessions typically lasting two or three days. “The trips tend to draw people who are serious about other places and have an intellectual interest in building a better community here,” said Sean Kershaw, director of the Citizens League.

Over time, assets and liabilities come into clearer focus. Visitors tend to marvel at the number of Fortune 500 headquarters located here (despite the disappearance of Pillsbury, Honeywell, Norwest Bank and Northwest Airlines). They admire our health care systems, our veneer of metro governance, the renewal of our cultural assets (Guthrie, Walker, Central Library, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Target Field) and our almost unique system of tax base sharing (fiscal disparities).

“People tend to admire the sense of civic duty in our corporations, the idea that business plays a role beyond the bottom line,” said Todd Klingel, president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. 

But our shortcomings also have become more apparent. Innovation no longer translates into good local jobs and growing incomes. A modern transportation system is still an uphill battle. The achievement gap between white students and others is an embarrassment. There’s no clear agreement on how to solve these problems. We are a land of 10,000 lakes and 10,000 diffuse groups, all with good intentions. Often we stumble over partisan differences.

“We have too many organizations chasing too many things,” said Lynn Casey, CEO of Padilla Speer Beardsley, the Minneapolis-based public relations firm.

We tend also to be excessively shy about promoting ourselves, said Charlie Zelle, CEO of Jefferson Lines. “It seems visitors have a higher opinion of us than we have of ourselves,” he said.

The Twin Cities rivalry
The trips have produced some concrete results. The Itasca Project (a focused effort by top CEOs) came out of the Denver trip. The Wilder Foundation’s Twin Cities Compass benchmarking initiative came from the Boston visit. Ideas for circumventing the state on transit funding and on the importance of retaining African-American business leaders emerged along the way.

One big piece of progress has been a lessening of the destructive rivalry between Minneapolis and St. Paul. “It’s so blindingly obvious now that we need to have coordination and collaboration as a region,” said Jay Cowles, a key partner in the Itasca Project. There has been a “sea change,” he said.

Cowles has been on all eight trips. “For me, a third of the value is discovering things about other cities and two-thirds has been the shared experience of seeing other places with other leaders from this community.”

His point was about the value of bonding among metro business and civic leaders who, before the series of trips, had not known one another or, in some cases, trusted one another. In an era of excessive partisanship, political extremes, media triviality, and economic scarcity, it’s important that business reassert itself in metropolitan affairs, not primarily for the sake of its bottom line, but for the wider good.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Arito Moerair on 12/04/2009 - 01:12 pm.

    Smug is the word. Oh, there is a smugness here that you would not believe. Particularly among people born here. They think the Twin Cities are perfect and wouldn’t change a thing to save their lives. Smug indeed.

  2. Submitted by Eric Schubert on 12/04/2009 - 08:46 pm.

    What does the Itasca Project do?

  3. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 12/05/2009 - 10:03 am.

    This article is interesting but way too self-congratulatory. Some very important issues are left out.

    A state and twin cities with our obesity rate and with the types of crowded, stinking and low quality nursing homes we allow needs to be engaging in improvement, not in self-congratulation. I am also dismayed by what seems to be an increase in air pollution and the love of many of our citizens for gas guzzlers. I am afraid an accurate picture of our state often includes an obese person in an over-sized ATV or van buying greasy food from McDonald’s.

  4. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 12/05/2009 - 12:43 pm.

    In spite of lip service to the concept of attracting the best and the brightest from everywhere, the behavior of Twin Cities employers and individuals can be anything but welcoming to those “not from here.” As a transplant here myself (albeit of long standing, more than thirty years), I’ve heard the question “what are you doing in Minnesota?” more times than I can count. This may be simply curiosity, but it comes off sounding like “what right do you have to be here?” Again and again, I’ve heard non-Minnesota natives describe the difficulty of making real friends. Employers are often suspicious of the motives of applicants from out-of-state and/or question their long-term commitment to living here.

    We are never going to be competitive with other states, no matter how many lakes, theaters, outdoor recrational opportunities, or excellent schools we have unless we get over our insularity.

  5. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 03/01/2010 - 07:19 pm.

    One thing that I believe needs to change is the sense of contentment people have. Forty or eighty years ago, there were people who build great things for the greater good. They brought professional sports, or built streetcar systems, or started foundations. From what I can tell, people used to be comfortable with the idea that the Twin Cities was a growing place. Now, it seems like people don’t want the Twin Cities to be any bigger. Why’s that? When everyone else is becoming bigger and better, you either grow or die!

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