"The Canary in the Global Gold Mine" by Bill Dodge, Regional Excellence

Regional Excellence

The Canary in the Global Gold Mine - Revised 8/17/09

by Bill Dodge

Maybe regional cooperation is countercyclical! Since the beginning of the year, my dance card has been full, including participating in recent regional gatherings in Rockford, Illinois and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In the Rockford region, I participated in an American Assembly dialogue with the community leaders in a region that cuts across northern Illinois, the Dubuque area in eastern Iowa, and southwestern Wisconsin. The region has been heavily dependent on particular industries over its history -- furniture, fasteners, and now Jeeps -- and, not surprisingly, is searching for ways to diversify its economy.

In the Chattanooga region, I participated in an American Institute of Architects charette with community leaders in a region that is benefiting from the growth in the foreign automobile industry. Volkswagen is building a new $2 billion assembly plant between the historically competing Chattanooga and Cleveland communities.

The community leaders in both regions know they need to cooperate.

In the Rockford region, they have formed the Tri-State Alliance to pursue common economic opportunities. They realize that they lack the roads and other infrastructure to connect the region, either internally or to the outside world, and, even worse, are concerned that they have been abandoned by their respective state governments.

In the Chattanooga region, community leaders can turn to the Southeast Tennessee Development District and the Coosa Valley Regional Development District. They realize that the Volkswagen plant, along with other new development, will have a regional impact, especially on the fastest growing suburbs across the state line in Georgia.

Lots of good ideas were advanced for building the capacity to cooperate. One of the simplest was to keep bringing regional leaders, and citizens, together. Options suggested included pretending that there was a regional dialogue/charette being held next week and each week thereafter, creating regional leadership or citizenship programs to prepare individuals to be practicing regional citizens, and engaging community leaders and citizens in launching projects that demonstrate the benefits of regional cooperation.

Or, in other words, to keep bringing the "unlikelies" together to discuss the "unmentionables" until they do the "unheardofs".

Finally, the community leaders realized that two-day dialogues and three-day charettes will not forge lasting cooperation. They succeeded in bringing a considerable number of the region's leaders together, but quickly discovered that they did not know, much less trust, each other.

More importantly, they concluded that it was difficult to sustain these interactions and take advantage of common opportunities to cooperate. Why? Because these, like other especially mid-sized, regions often lack the capacity to follow-up on even the good ideas for cooperation.

The Tri-State Alliance in the Rockford region is primarily an extracurricular effort of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council. Community leaders in the Chattanooga region have not yet selected a place to go to conduct a regional analysis on the impact of the Volkswagen plant. In its absence, each jurisdiction is attempting to conduct its own study, which could all too easily result in piecemeal reports that do not consider the implications of actions taken in neighboring jurisdictions.

The future success of the Rockford and Chattanooga regions depends on their ability to cooperate. Without it, the Rockford region will not find and make the sustained investments required to diversify its automobile-dependent economy. Without it, the jurisdictions in the Chattanooga region will all too easily make myopic investments and squander the collective benefits offered by the new Volkswagen plant.

And the Rockford and Chattanooga regions are not alone. Few regions across the country have sufficient capacity to take advantage of common economic opportunities, much less brunt common economic threats. And creating economic opportunities is no longer a nicety in these times, it has become a necessity.

Regions are the only governance units that cover real human settlements. They bring together the parts of human settlements that have already grown, are currently growing, and want to grow in the future. In the Chattanooga region, the human settlement continues to evolve outward from a dual core. The three parts of the Rockford region appear to have evolved separately, but are increasingly tied together by intertwined economies.

Regions are the organic entities that shape our futures. Local, state, and even national governments provide key resources for fostering future growth, but all too often arbitrarily divide up regions. And divided regions cannot survive and thrive any more successfully than other divided organisms, such as roses or elephants. They will wither and die.

Regional cooperation is the governance canary in the global gold mine. If one wants to quickly assess our hopes for the future, measure the capacity of our regions to cooperate. The best investment that local, state, and national governments could make in rebuilding the national economy would be to strengthen the capacity of each region to cooperate in pursuing common economic, environmental, and social challenges.

Unless our regions, our human settlements, are confident that they have the capacity to address any emerging opportunity, or threat, they will have little chance of competing and succeeding. And, if they have this capacity, they will probably build the sustainable communities needed by this and future generations.


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.