Volunteer-driven business and civic group Itasca Project is merging into Greater MSP, the regional economic development partnership of 300 businesses and organizations.

"As we began to collaborate more frequently, we started to think about whether joining forces could increase the impact of each entity and serve the entire community better," said Lynn Casey, chair of Itasca Project and one of its founders.

Greater MSP actually sprang from an Itasca Project task force that saw the need for a business retention and recruitment outfit that could work across cities and counties that often competed against each other.

Itasca began in 2003, when a group of business leaders decided a more nuanced approach to community issues was needed. The group has tackled such varying topics as education and infrastructure needs, diversity initiatives and economic disparities.

In the meantime, Greater MSP has evolved from a high-profile recruiting entity that packaged business development deals to more of a data-research outfit that partners with localities on workforce development and business expansion initiatives.

After several months of discussion, a joint task force recommended the integration.

With the merger, Itasca Project will be better able to scale and accelerate its work to develop civic leaders and address long-term issues affecting the region's economic competitiveness and quality of life, said Casey, retired chair of Padilla marketing and advertising firm.

The Itasca Project name will continue and its work expand thanks to "new connections to more leaders and organizations as well as the operational support available within Greater MSP," she said.

Itasca was conceived to operate "behind the scenes," said Tim Welsh, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant who is now an executive with U.S. Bancorp.

In fact, Itasca volunteers long have used free space at McKinsey for meetings and relied on dedicated McKinsey staff for research as they worked to find consensus on challenges among business, government and community stakeholders. The idea was to study issues and solutions comprehensively before introducing them for public debate and consideration, including by the local governments and the Minnesota Legislature.

Itasca has focused on the need to equitably maximize the faster-growing ranks of people of color, including immigrants, knowing that Minnesota's growth is coming through those populations.

"The work Itasca does to support our regional economy complements the existing capabilities of Greater MSP and is aligned with the mission of our partnership, which is to accelerate regional competitiveness and inclusive economic growth," said Peter Frosch, the CEO of Greater MSP.

Recent collaborations between the two groups include the Regional Economic Indicators Dashboard, which tracks progress on economic growth against peer regions. Another is Business Bridge, which helps connect large companies to smaller Minnesota firms that could be suppliers. Itasca says the project has produced $10 billion in purchases since 2010.

ConnextMSP is another collaborative effort, helping young professionals of color in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region connect with local employers.

Casey said Itasca will soon issue a second report on the shortage of workforce housing, including innovations and solutions. Frosch noted that Greater MSP early in its 11-year history didn't consider housing. It now has become a key ingredient in economic development.

"Itasca is not normal a organization in that it's been volunteer-driven and virtual," Casey said. "We are talking about bringing the best of Itasca … and tapping into the needed [research] and infrastructure that Greater MSP provides."