Not until the 1990s was it clear that “place mattered.” Until then, a city’s success or failure drifted on the winds of fate. Would the natural resources hold out? Would the big companies stay? Those were the pivotal questions in the industrial era.

But as the century turned and the information age took hold, cities came face to face with a new reality: People had replaced companies as the pivotal variables. And people — especially the young and talented — could live and work wherever they wanted. They weren’t looking for companies. They were looking for attractive, energetic cities with an authentic “sense of place.”

Cities had become consumer products. Any metropolitan region hoping to compete suddenly needed a distinctive brand. Austin, Seattle, Denver, Boston, Portland and San Diego were among the places able to forge images that combined “technology” and “brainpower” with enticing lifestyles, often enriched by involving regional music, food, culture, historic neighborhoods, mountains, beaches and waterfronts. It worked because those cities, while promoting themselves, were also working to improve their competitive résumés.

So, what’s our brand? What’s our story? What’s on our competitive résumé? The short answer is that we’re still working on it.

More than a decade has passed since Mark Yudof, then president of the University of Minnesota, warned that the Twin Cities had lost its competitive cool. He and other critics acknowledged that we hadn’t exactly fallen apart. Rather, we had coasted on the glowing reviews of the 1970s while competitors had passed us by. We hadn’t fully detected the changing metropolitan competition or the rising importance of what’s now called place-making.

“This was something that people under 30 generally understood as a game-changer, while people over 30 did not,” explains Katherine Loflin, a national consultant on the dynamics of place.

The Twin Cities spent the next decade trying to catch up. Outdated arts and sports venues were impressively rebuilt. An infant rail transit system was launched. Various efforts to benchmark the business climate were begun. The Itasca Project was formed to call out the region’s biggest challenges. The mayors of Minneapolis, St. Paul and 48 suburbs began to meet regularly over common concerns.

Most notably, business and local governments joined hands in 2011 to create Greater MSP as the region’s economic development and marketing force. For the first time, the metro would work together on economic development and reach out as a unified market to tell the world about itself. But tell it what?

That obvious void led Greater MSP’s director Michael Langley and Caren Dewar, director of the Urban Land Institute-Minnesota, to convene a series of extraordinary gatherings to find an answer. On a snowy morning in mid-April, I joined 260 invitees from diverse slices of Twin Cities life for an all-day workshop, followed up by another session in late May.

In one sense, the gatherings were nothing new. For a decade, there had been much hand-wringing over “who we are” and “how we should compete.” A dozen times delegations of business and civic leaders had visited competing cities and marveled at their confidence and unified voice. Now, with Greater MSP in place, this metro region finally had such a voice. But whether it could carry a tune or agree on the lyrics was still up in the air.

Langley and Dewar hoped that the upbeat workshops — spiked with an extra dose of younger, more diverse, more energetic participants — would provide a clear answer and an actual to-do list.

A series of sobering numbers added a note of urgency. Despite progress, the Twin Cities metro was still failing to attract young talent, ranking a dismal 39th in one national study. Indeed, the Met Council continued to project a net out-migration to other U.S. cities over the next 25 years.

As a starting point in our discussions, Langley had suggested that participants measure the Twin Cities metro against six attributes of our strongest competitors: 1) A strong brand and image; 2) a culture of excellence in education, health and quality of life; 3) a lively spirit of innovation and risk-taking; 4) a strong connective infrastructure; 5) a commitment to preserving and regenerating regional assets, and 6) a striving for openness and social equity.

It’s a good list. My own take is that we measure up pretty well on most items, and that the pursuit of cool is a little like trying too hard to be funny; the harder you try, the more ridiculous you look. Still, there’s something to be said for laying the platform upon which magical things can happen — or may be already happening, as in some artsy districts of Minneapolis.

It’s clear that we must work harder than our rivals because we have two extra hurdles to leap over: an exaggerated reputation for bad weather and an unfortunate cultural trait that Scandinavians call janteloven — a smug inability to toot our own horn. Somehow, we must break free to celebrate more enthusiastically our strengths while focusing more sharply on fixing (not just talking about fixing) our weaknesses. Using Langley’s list, here’s my take on how we stack up against Denver, Seattle and our other top rivals:


1. Brand and image: Our grade: D

We need a sophisticated marketing campaign that heats up our cold image and recaptures our lost identity. To be blunt, most people don’t know much about us, and what they do know isn’t all that favorable.

“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.


6. A spirit of openness and social equity: Grade: B

Our state’s recognition of same-sex marriage signals a welcoming and tolerant social atmosphere that greatly benefits our region’s competitive standing. On a personal level, however, our reputation is quite different: Outwardly friendly, but cool, aloof and hard to get to know.


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My assessment doesn’t match perfectly the thinking of the larger group, but it’s close. Langley said that the sessions and resulting agenda “validated” the MSP region as a competitor in the global economy as long as all segments — public and private — can agree on a collaborative effort that turns talk into action.

“We moved the needle,” Dewar insisted. “There’s now a broader understanding that we’re competing with other cities for the same talent and that we can no longer afford to be complacent about it.”

Thirteen years ago, my Star Tribune colleague Dave Hage and I wrote a series of articles in these pages challenging the Twin Cities to “compete or retreat?” Retreat held the upper hand at the time, but, as Dewar points out, that’s no longer the case.

We’ve taken some major steps, just not enough of them. Indeed, today’s to-do list is remarkably similar to the one that Hage and I assembled 13 years ago. For the most part, we’d still rather admire our problems than tackle them. Maybe it’s time to borrow some positive advice from Lake Wobegon and find the courage to “stand up and do what needs to be done.”


Steve Berg is a Minneapolis writer and urban design consultant.