Washington – The Twin Cities area is battling for a new military headquarters that could help secure the region's high-tech economy for decades.
The recruiting war for the Army Futures Command is not as high profile as the struggle to attract Amazon's secondary base of operations. But a research and development headquarters that intends to partner with local talent on the next generation of technical innovations for the largest branch of the U.S. military is a pipeline to high-paying jobs from a steady funding source.
So politicians, communities and companies have set side parochial concerns to make a united pitch.
Michael Langley, CEO of Greater MSP, the Minneapolis-St. Paul region's development partnership, is coordinating the campaign to woo the Department of Defense away from 14 other areas that made the futures command's first cut.
"We're doing this in partnership with all the players — the federal delegation, the state, local communities and industry partners," Langley said.
The Army considers the new project a "major command" that will organize its modernization process. Although it will include fewer than 500 personnel, the headquarters will locate around what it believes is the country's best blend of "academic and commercial institutions" to "harness" their talent.
The Army has told each of the 15 finalists that it is "looking for a location where this command's headquarters can rapidly join an existing innovation ecosystem."
The defense department's desire to team up on "the commercial end of military research" signals that the new facility will be "a major win" for whoever gets it, said Scott Andes, director of the National League of Cities innovation ecosystems program.
"These research facilities are on the front line of the future economy," Andes explained. "These things don't exist in isolation. There is an important multiplier effect."
No matter where it is located, "this is something that benefits everyone in the region," said Kevin McKinnon, the state's deputy commissioner for economic development.
Shoreview-based PaR Systems is an international robotics and automation company that builds large components for the Navy. The company happily obliged when Minnesota's federal delegation reached out for help assembling data for the Army.
"It all starts with a grass-roots effort," said Ray Goodwin, PaR's vice president of sales and marketing. The Twin Cities already has "a really great high tech base," Goodwin noted. But attracting new tech jobs or companies adds to the critical mass.
Langley is reluctant to predict exactly how many high-paying new tech jobs are at stake.
Existing defense contractors like Polaris Industries, which already makes vehicles for the Army, is looking to add to the partnership.
"Should [the region] be selected, we view this as a long-term relationship," said John Olson, Polaris' vice president in charge of defense contracts.
The Twin Cities area is currently "underleveraged" with the Defense Department, and Olson thinks that could actually be a selling point. "We employ 1,000 engineers and technicians," he said. "We're here because of the talent pool."
The public-private partnerships and academic relationships the Army says it wants will profit existing businesses and universities, wherever the Futures Command goes, Andes said. But that is only the beginning. "If you look around the country [at government research headquarters], there are usually build-out clusters around them," Andes said. "When you attract scientists and engineers, there are follow-on benefits. These people tend to start their own businesses."
"What you're hoping," said Matt Kramer, the University of Minnesota's vice president of university relations, "is that there is another 3M out there somewhere."
Langley is counting on the Twin Cities' history of technical innovations and collaboration, as well as its burgeoning high-tech sector and robust academic institutions to best a field that includes major tech hubs Austin, Texas, and North Carolina's Research Triangle, as well as a who's who list of metropolitan areas including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.
Many of those cities made the first cut for Amazon's high-profile second headquarters search; the Twin Cities didn't.
The Twin Cities' current supply and quality of scientists and engineers is critical. The Army says it will measure the quality and growth potential of local workforces in "nine occupations closely associated with technology innovation: biomedical engineer, chemical engineer, computer and hardware engineer, electrical engineer, materials engineer, materials scientist, mechanical engineer, software developer (applications), and software developer (systems software)." The military is also looking at existing networks that demonstrate industry and academic partnerships and government support for private innovation.
This is why a letter to an Undersecretary of the Army, led by Rep. Betty McCollum and signed by Minnesota's entire federal delegation, focused on the state's Fortune 500 companies. The letter also touted current government contractors such as 3M, Orbital ATK, Cray, General Dynamics, Honeywell and Cummins, and science and technology trendsetters such as Medtronic, Boston Scientific, Mayo Clinic and UnitedHealth Group.
"We have the R&D [research and development] and tech," McCollum said. "UnitedHealth handles the military's Tricare health insurance; 3M makes body armor. The next step forward is, how do we get on the cutting edge?"
The state university system's commitment to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is another measure the Army will judge.
The U's Kramer is pushing out data points that identify how many STEM programs the school offers, as well as the fact that it ranks sixth in the country in technology transfer and eighth in research and development.
"We bring in $900 million a year in outside research grants won and corporate-sponsored research," Kramer said.
Those are the kinds of numbers that will matter as the state and region scramble to meet a Thursday deadline to make a detailed case to the Defense Department. So, too, will projected growth in the technology sector, the transportation system and even, according to the Army, the "emergency response timeline and capabilities during a suspected terrorist incident."
The Twin Cities' ranking by the American College of Sports Medicine as the country's fittest city with the best parks as measured by the Trust for Public Land will count. So will cost of living and quality of life. Everything from K-12 public schools to cultural offerings to pro sports franchises will come into play.
One important number that will not be included in the courtship is the giant, multimillion-dollar tax break that often determines where coveted private developments go. The federal government does not get those.
Nor is there going to be a need for massive spending on infrastructure.
The Army Futures Command looks to have little downside compared with its massive potential. That, said the people tasked with getting it to the Twin Cities, is why this recruiting war will be so hard fought.