One regional economy

April 1, 2014 | 3:52 am

By The Gazette Editorial Board

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Less than a year ago, just after the Corridor Business Alliance announced a new brand name for its regional economic development initiative, North Liberty business owner Dennis Tallman called for a bold follow-up: “the integration of economic development activities into a centralized regional authority,” he wrote in a Feb. 10 Gazette guest column.

He suggested that the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance — itself a new entity that combined Priority One, The Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Cedar Rapids Downtown District — merge with groups such as Iowa City Area Development and the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce.

“One argument against this merger is that local groups will lose their identity,” he wrote. “I believe that our local identities will be lost if we do not work collectively and provide a more focused economic development strategy. Iowa’s Creative Corridor (the new brand name) needs to be creative and find a unified regional approach to economic development.”

He said the benefits would include less fighting among Corridor area communities trying to attract new business and retain existing companies, as well as curbing excessive use of taxpayer-funded benefits such as tax increment financing (TIF), which can rob local government and education systems of revenue needed to keep pace with providing services. The focus, Tallman wrote, should be more on collaboration to promote our region so it can be more competitive with even larger regions, such as Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

“I suggest we are considerably stronger if we are seen as one region, reflected in fewer organizations, and focused on a common mission,” he added.

We agreed with much of what Tallman argued for, and we still do. An enhanced regional development approach could bring more benefits overall to our area’s economy and communities than pitting one city or group against the other. Bringing good new jobs and business to the seven-county region of nearly a half-million residents should be seen as a win no matter which community is host to the growth.

SIGN OF TIMES

That approach has taken root in many other regions of the nation. For example, members of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Business Plan embraced it in announcing their initiative in early 2011. They saw the need to better communicate what their region had to offer not only on a regional scale but on the increasingly competitive and complex global stage.

So, too, could our already highly productive, resource-rich region compete even more effectively and prosper if we attract new development and more people with a variety of talent and state-of-the-art skills needed in today’s global marketplace. And existing industries, as well as small business owners such as Tallman, can benefit from the expanded activity and labor pool.

Are we, though, making some real progress in regional economic development?

Unfortunately, “bidding border wars” with some hefty taxpayer subsidies haven’t gone away at either end of the Corridor. Coralville and Iowa City, and Cedar Rapids and Hiawatha, have had tiffs about some TIF deals. It’s still hard for many city leaders to not protect their community’s interests, their natural immediate concern.

But if such battles lines remain in the sand, that doesn’t bode well for our region’s long-term outlook. That’s because, as Lon Pluckhahn, Marion city manager, told The Gazette last June: “All communities end up giving incentives just to keep a company from going to another community, and that ultimately damages everybody.”

POSITIVE SIGNS

There are some encouraging signs for regionalism. The Corridor Business Alliance that was born nearly three years ago has, beyond the branding initiative, linked more closely the efforts of local development and higher-education groups via its website, ongoing educational presentations and collaborative discussions. In a Gazette interview last June, the leaders of our region’s heavyweight development organizations — Dee Baird of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and Mark Nolte of the Iowa City Area Development Group — said the two groups have done regional marketing for more than 15 years but now are working together more effectively than ever. For example, when a business interest inquires, all development groups in the region often provide information for a package presented as a single proposal.

Last month, representatives of those two groups met to review how they might even better coordinate the recruitment of new businesses, grow existing companies and foster start-ups anywhere in the region. The topic of merger also was on the table.

Merger still doesn’t appear to be imminent. And perhaps that’s not a must, at least for the near future. But if effective regional progress stalls out anytime soon, we hope big-picture suggestions such as Tallman’s aren’t left on the wayside.

Eastern Iowa already has much to offer in cultural, educational, business and job opportunities. We must communicate that to the world in order to keep building on and strengthening that base. If we’re not moving forward, surely, we’ll eventually fall behind a fast-changing world.

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