Here's a new economic theory: Well-loved cities do better economically.

Early results of a three-year study in the Twin Cities and 25 other communities show there may be a link between local economic growth and how much residents are connected to their town.

"This is a new way of looking at how engaged residents create successful communities," said Paula Ellis, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Knight Foundation, which is financing the $2.3 million Gallup study.

In the Twin Cities, the "Soul of the Community" study found that a city's offerings for social life, how welcoming residents were to others, education and community aesthetics were the qualities that most inspired loyalty and passion.

And that could mean good things for the local economy.

Results in the first year of the study show a significant correlation between gross domestic product growth over the past five years in each of the 26 cities to the emotional connection residents have to their city.

When the study is finished, Knight and Gallup hope to prove whether emotional connection drives economic growth or the other way around.

The study is an offshoot of one in which Gallup found that increasing employees' emotional connection to a company often leads to improved financial performance for the company.

"Politicians always have to make a case when they want to invest in certain areas," said Marc Fest, the Knight Foundation's vice president of communication. If Gallup shows that investing in aesthetics or in social offerings is going to improve the economy, that could influence the strategic decisions that leaders make, he said.

"These are areas that often are overlooked or discounted as part of any economic development intervention," said Katherine Loflin, a consultant with Gallup.

Of course, in these times when the economy is spiraling out of control, the Gallup data aren't "going to heal the fact that homes are foreclosing the way that they are,'' she said. "Once we get past repairing the damage, community leaders can look more holistically and make sure these components are also included."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788