Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development Matt Kisber acts these days like a new state law is the answer to the state’s dismal showing in the competition for the $1.3 billion Toyota plant earlier this year.
More to the point, before he starts implementing a new law, he should first send a memo to himself and his boss, Governor Phil Bredesen, reminding them to keep their politics out of it next time.
Commissioner Kisber’s cheerleading for this new law is only the latest example of a regular feature of political theater these days – the ability of someone to look straight in your eyes and claim that he didn’t do what you just saw him do.
If there’s one clear legacy of the Bush Administration, this is it. However, it’s a talent not just confined to the White House, as Commissioner Kisber proves when he extols the positive impact of the new bill encouraging regional cooperation on large economic development projects.
Unfortunately, it didn’t include a rider prohibiting the Bredesen Administration from strong-arming Memphis economic development officials like they did with the Toyota project.
While Commissioner Kisber may champion the virtues of regional collaboration now, he and the governor’s office stood directly in the way of it last time. Back then, Crittenden County was a finalist in the manufacturing plant sweepstakes, and it was clearly in Memphis’ interest to support it in any way possible.
Running In Place
Meanwhile, Chattanooga was also in the running, and state officials were putting all their eggs in the East Tennessee basket. So, rather than comprehend that Tennessee would also benefit if the plant located in the Memphis region, the Bredesen Administration told local officials that if they helped our adjacent county, it would be at our own peril.
In other words, Memphis officials could support Marion’s bid for the plant, but it could pay for it during the session of the Tennessee Legislature or in a lack of interest in requests for funding for our local economic development programs.
It was the political equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Meanwhile, the Tupelo region surprised everyone and moved to the top of Toyota’s list, largely on the strength of the regional cooperation that it demonstrated. While state government in Tennessee was pretending like Arkansas doesn’t exist, Mississippi officials put together a three-county collaboration and even reached out to Alabama officials.
It said volumes to the Japanese car manufacturer, which, like most Japanese companies, think that understanding government in the U.S. is harder than People’s Republic of China. As a result, they treat pledges of intergovernmental cooperation as the Rosetta Stone, because it eliminates confusion and the need to sort out various government’s roles.
About one thing, Commissioner Kisber was right. It is a definite competitive advantage for regions to be given extra power under the law to work more efficiently in site assembly and infrastructure development.
That said, state government needs to increase its sophistication enough to understand that regions that cross state lines need even more help.
Sadly, as it has done several times, Memphis was ahead of the curve in this regard, but in the end, it failed to capitalize on its early work on regionalism. Most impressive was the fact that the Memphis program – called the Governors’ Alliance of Regional Excellence – had the vocal support of the governors of Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.
They were titular heads of the process (staffed by the Memphis Regional Chamber) that created a regional master plan for the three-state Memphis metro region. Sadly, little was done to implement the numerous recommendations of the final report, and the building momentum was lost at the moment when it would have vaulted Memphis ahead of other metropolitan areas of the country.
Playing Catch Up
Today, Memphis finds itself playing catch up with a number of rival cities making impressive strides in creating seamless regional development.
In Cleveland, Ohio, the mayor has even appointed the first-ever chief of regional development. This regional czar will be responsible for six city departments, including the airports and the community and economic development departments.
It’s a concept worth considering in Memphis and Shelby County.
Here, despite economic development organizations that run the gamut from the Airport Authority to the Port Commission, from the Music Commission to the Film Commission, from the Center City Commission to the city/county Office of Economic Development, there is little conversation between the agencies, much less coordination.
In Denver, the nine-county regional cooperation includes various counties and dozens of cities and led the construction of Ivesco Field, Coors Field, the arts and culture district and a light rail system.
In Lexington, Kentucky, all the county executives and mayors in a 17-county area meet monthly, and the mayor of the city is a prime mover for a new level of collaboration.
Meanwhile, in Jackson, Mississippi, the success that began with the Toyota win has inspired a new gospel of regionalism that is driving economic growth. The Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership – formerly the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce – is raising money to market an eight-county region, and in words unusual for a Chamber exec, the president of the Jackson Chamber Partnership said: “The area has become recognized as one region. When we get inquiries, it is for a 50-mile radius or 100-mile radius from Jackson.”
Now, when a company submits basic criteria for a project, the Partnership doesn’t just send information for Jackson and its home county. Rather, it sends sites within the entire eight counties.
States Can Help
Other cities around the U.S. are leaping at the opportunity to connect with other cities and regions, both physically and economically. While cities and regions must of course work to sell their own unique assets and strengths, collaborative relationships across county and state lines help cities and counties develop niches that complement and reinforce each other.
As a result, rather than competing, these metro areas work cooperatively to develop stronger marketing programs and to stake out the strongest possible place in the market.
States can do a lot to encourage these kinds of relationships – help regions understand their economies and the competitive positions of other regions. Most of all, state agencies can align their programs and the policies with the realities of an economy whose unit of competition is increasingly regional in nature.
But, first, states like Tennessee need to quit playing politics with the economic future of cities like ours and grasp the full meaning of regionalism, especially when it crosses state lines.