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Continued: The Twin Cities brand: There's work to do

  • Article by: STEVE BERG
  • Last update: July 27, 2013 - 6:09 PM

“The only map we’re on is the weather map,” Langley quipped, referring to research showing that others tend to associate us with just one word: cold.

A more accurate image would be of a community that embraces all seasons with uncommon vigor (biking, boating, cross-country skiing, etc.) Indeed, easy access to nature is probably our greatest asset. The region should piggyback on the Minneapolis convention bureau’s brilliant “city by nature” tagline. “MSP: A city by nature” would say almost everything in a few punchy words: that we’re a unified regional city with all of the sophisticated urban amenities, but that we’re also integrated into the lakes, streams and woodlands that provide a refreshing retreat from the hum of urban life.

Such a campaign would cost money, but there’s much to erase. For decades we’ve allowed Garrison Keillor and the Coen brothers to define us as eccentric rustics sitting in the Chatterbox Cafe waiting for the snow to melt. It’s brilliant satire and a tribute to our appreciation of self-deprecating humor. But it’s not helpful in the new competition when it’s the only image out there.

As important as repairing our image is recovering our identity. It’s hard to sell a product that has no name. Gradually over several decades, the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area has become known to us and to others as simply “Minnesota.” This is particularly destructive in an age when metro areas form the basic units of global competition. It’s hard to imagine Chicago (and the “Chicagoland” suburbs) deciding to call itself Illinois or metro Atlanta preferring to be called Georgia.

Our name should be Minneapolis Saint Paul, or MSP for short. Again, it’s hard to compete with other cities if you’re not thought of as a city.

 

2. Culture of excellence in education, health and quality of life: Grade: A-minus

But it’s a huge minus that casts a shadow on all of the region’s other successes. Often called the achievement gap, it’s really our failure to develop or attract a sizable African-American or Latino middle class.

Our abnormally large racial gaps in income, school achievement and other measurements are probably best explained by history rather than discrimination. Middle-class whites have enjoyed a supermajority here for generations, while later groups have arrived disproportionately poor and disadvantaged. The gap should narrow as the generations progress, although social mobility is more difficult today than back in the industrial age, when it was easy for European immigrants to find unskilled work that provided stable lives for their children. Now skill and educational achievement are mandatory. The task is to sharply accelerate the movement of impoverished young people into trades and careers that support middle-class lives. This is a high-profile problem that’s getting a lot of attention, with obvious implications for trying to maintain our region’s big advantage in workforce quality and productivity.

 

3. A lively spirit of innovation and risk-taking: Grade: C

Having a disproportionate number of corporate headquarters located here continues to be an advantage, even though innovations come increasingly from smaller, more adventuresome firms. Unfortunately, that kind of adventure and risk-taking may be missing from our DNA and must be engineered into our business culture. We have a sad history of allowing our discoveries to be commercialized elsewhere. It happened with flour milling, organ transplants, the Internet and supercomputers, and it could happen again with 3-D printing. We must find a way to strengthen research and development, celebrate our innovations and put them to work in our regional economy. We must also convince our politicians that our primary competitors are not low-cost South Dakota or Oklahoma but high-quality Denver, Austin and Seattle.

 

4. A strong infrastructure: Grade: D

The Legislature’s failure last session to allow the build-out of the transit system was a major setback: Rival cities will now get federal funds that should have gone to us, and we’ll be less competitive in offering the next generation the choice it’s looking for — less reliance on the automobile and life on a smaller carbon footprint. Our current strategy is extra-costly and far too slow. Yes, we’ve made progress on transit, and we’ve used managed lanes to squeeze the most from our freeway system. But we have a lot of catching up to do.

 

5. A commitment to preserving and regenerating regional assets: Grade: A-minus

Culturally, this applies to the Guthrie, the Walker, Target Field, the Science Museum, etc. We’ve done well to preserve such assets, but our greatest natural asset and one of our top competitive advantages is in jeopardy: water. Forty percent of the state’s lakes and streams are polluted, largely from agricultural runoff. In the “land of sky blue waters,” that won’t do.

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