In the last century, a familiar bromide at meetings of the directors of regional councils of governments was: "If you don't have a regional crisis, invent one!"
Regional organizations depended upon crises for their survival. In many ways, the ideal regional issue was one that each local government had attempted to deal with on its own, had failed miserably, and now left the entire region facing some immediate economic/environmental/social catastrophe. Regional councils thrived in crises.
Since the turn of the century, this bromide has become obsolete. New interest in cooperation has sprung up so rapidly, that, for the first time, many regional councils have to make choices among opportunities. 911 made local leaders and citizens appreciate the urgency of preparing and testing, regional plans for addressing terrorist or natural threats, any of which would quickly overwhelm the first response of individual jurisdictions. Moreover, local leaders and citizens began to grasp the extent of unmet transportation and other infrastructure needs and began calling for cooperative strategies to invest increasingly scarce resources in the highest priority projects.
Maybe, most importantly, the need to shape future growth to curb profligate sprawl became a regional mantra, just as the economy collapsed, sending local leaders and citizens into instant survival mode.
Now, local leaders and citizens have a critical choice to make. Are they going to retreat back into their jurisdictional boundaries to nurse their economic wounds? Are they going to practice "beggar thy neighbor" behavior? Are they going to abandon regional cooperation?
Their choices are being made in their responses to the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
The news is positive in those regions that have pursued cooperative responses to the challenges of the new century. As Mark Muro related in a recent Citiwire column (Stimulus Good News: Ready States, Regions), a number of regional councils and other regional organizations have already assembled the lists, and even plans, for transportation and other infrastructure projects that satisfy the key criteria for ARRA funding; that is, they address high priority needs and are ready to go. He cited examples in some of the largest regions -- Chicago, Kansas City, Las Vegas, St. Louis, and Seattle. But it is also true in some of the smaller regions. For example, the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments is helping the mountain towns in the greater Silverthorne region to pursue joint weatherization, homeland security, prevention/wellness, water infrastructure and other initiatives with ARRA funding.
These regions have enhanced their odds of securing stimulus funding. The projects that they are advancing reflect the priorities emerging from cooperative planning processes. In fact, the ARRA sometimes rewards cooperative planning, for example, giving priority to projects identified in regional transportation plans. Add the political clout of advancing projects that are supported by local governments region wide, and these regions should confidently expect to receive at least their fair share of ARRA funding.
My hope is that federal officials will recognize cooperation, not going it alone with Washington lobbyists, as the most, and maybe only, appropriate path to stimulus funding. Not only does fostering cooperation help guarantee investing in the highest priority projects for rebuilding our regional economies, it helps assure that small jurisdictions, as well as large, will be beneficiaries of ARRA.
It is not too late for other regions to follow this lead. True, it takes months, even years, to build the working relationships among the police, fire, public works and other employees, as well as elected officials and the public, that are needed to agree on priority infrastructure and service projects. And, in that time, many of the major decisions will already be made on ARRA and state stimulus funding.
However, it appears that this will not be the last infusion of federal and state funds in rebuilding the economy. Future rounds of funding are anticipated for some of the initiatives launched in the stimulus programs, including support for new energy sources, reduced CO2 emissions, and expanded health care.
Moreover, it is not unreasonable to expect that future rounds of funding will require more cooperative planning. The inability to finance projects that cut across regions and states has already emerged as a shortcoming of ARRA. The winners in the next rounds of funding could be -- should be -- the local leaders and citizens that can prepare convincing cooperative strategies and participate actively in multi-region, multi-state, and national initiatives. And President Obama and governors could help seed this cooperation with ARRA and other funding.
These cooperative actions, I believe, will also boost our confidence that we are not only making the wisest investments in the rebuilding the economy today but building the capacity to address the economic vicissitudes of the future. And in the process, test the appropriateness of designating the 21st as the century of the region.
Bill Dodge assists community leaders and citizens to build their capacity to address regional challenges. He is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils, author of Regional Excellence, and can be reached at: WilliamRDodge@aol.com