A Twin Cities newcomer might have heard nothing remarkable Monday night at the well-orchestrated annual meeting of Greater MSP, the nonprofit public-private partnership that grew out of the work of the business-backed Itasca Project two years ago and is charged with spurring regional economic growth. The event’s unabashed boosterism might have seemed like standard chamber-of-commerce fare in any U.S. city.
For those who know the local context, however, the messages had more significance. Greater MSP speakers were careful not to specifically criticize other Minnesota business and government leaders, past or present. But albeit indirectly, they were calling on today’s leaders to change their tunes.
Here’s our contextual rendering of the three bullet points in the new strategic plan that Greater MSP unveiled:
• Tell our story. The leading business and political voices in this region are too often raised in complaint rather than praise for the economic opportunity available here. The steady drumbeat from the state’s leading business organizations and one major political party for the last quarter-century has been about an unfriendly business climate — even as many Minnesota businesses prospered and average incomes climbed well ahead of national averages. What praise is heard has often been modest.
“We need to be as forceful in communicating our strengths as we are in addressing our problems,” Greater MSP CEO Michael Langley said. “We have a great story, probably one of the best anywhere. While we have challenges, all regions do.” Translation: Bad business climate talk is bad for business. Cool it.
• Prioritize talent. Anyone who has spent time at the State Capitol in recent years has no doubt about the top policy priority of the state’s business lobby — “no new taxes.” But as baby boomers retire, that shopworn emphasis is being overtaken by growing concern about the region’s supply of skilled workers. Greater MSP’s strategy for the next three to five years is silent about taxes but stresses the need to shore up the workforce.
One key is closing the long-lamented achievement gap between white and nonwhite students in Twin Cities schools, speakers said. It’s key to minimizing a looming labor shortage. The event’s biggest spontaneous applause came in response to Thor Construction CEO Ravi Norman’s rally cry: “After tonight, none of us can consider this someone else’s problem. It is my problem. It is your problem.”
Better coordination of the area’s disparate existing efforts to improve student achievement is needed, speakers said. Among those on hand: lame-duck Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who announced the next day that he would head just such an effort at Generation Next. Rather than form a new task force, as Greater MSP appears poised to do, it should throw in with Rybak and Generation Next.
• Great to greater. Greater MSP’s third strategic aim is explicitly about promoting the things that the Twin Cities already does well. It touts five regional business strengths — food and water solutions; health and life sciences; innovation technology and advanced manufacturing; headquarters and business services, and financial services and insurance. The region will fare better if it tailors public support to those industries’ needs.
A critique is implicit: Too often, public policies that affect those and other industries have been guided by forces other than research-derived data. Partisan preferences, parochialism and lobbying clout have carried the day — even as they’ve perpetuated rivalries within the region.
A tentative idea floated Monday night deserves exploration: Could Greater MSP spawn a data clearinghouse geared to economic development decisionmaking? That may not be the role that was originally conceived for the region’s economic rainmakers. But with a governing board that spans the political spectrum from DFLers Rybak and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman to Anoka County Board GOP conservative Rhonda Sivarajah, Greater MSP might be well-suited to be a trusted nonpartisan source of the information policymakers need.