St. Paul, Minn. — The group includes about 40 Twin Cities government, civic and business leaders. They are reviewing eight possible regional initiatives; most relate to job growth, education or transportation, but also include addressing the economic threat of a growing racial divide. Taxes are not on the list.
Jim Campbell, former chairman of Wells Fargo Bank Minnesota is chairing the effort. He says the region is in good shape now, but there are long term issues that need to be addressed.
"To remain competitive, we must work collectively to make this one of the best places to live and one of the best places to work in the whole world. And I think what we heard from a lot of the CEOs was that they didn't feel that a lot of these big picture competitive issues were being addressed," said Campbell.
It's pure self-interest. But it's pure self-interest that happens to be in the common interest of the region.
The group is expected to agree on three projects for action this year, including addressing the region's transportation ills, and promoting more cooperation between business and the University of Minnesota.
The McKnight Foundation, and the consulting firm McKinsey & Company are supporting the project. The group harkens back to civic efforts that many credit with helping the Twin Cities succeed despite its remote location and cold climate.
Twenty years ago, Minnesota's civic landscape featured a variety of non-partisan organizations that would study local problems and their solutions. But many organizations have met their demise, including Spring Hill, Interstudy, and the Itasca Seminar, from which the new group takes its name.
"It's hard to discount how busy people have become," said Sean Kershaw, president of the Citizens League. Arguably the most prominent of the civic affairs groups, the Citizens League survived, but lost more than half its membership during the 1990s.
"For example at the Citizens League, people simply didn't have the time that they used to have to get involved in long in-depth study projects on arguably the most important issues. They simply lacked the time," said Kershaw.
The demands on local business leaders from global competition, Wall Street, and their growing firms have also increased. Project consultant Tim Welsh with McKinsey says interviews with business leaders revealed a strong sense of need, but also a sense that the Twin Cities had lost the historic commitment from corporate executives that built important institutions like the Guthrie Theater.
"And there's a fear in some sense, that unless this generation of business leaders steps up and takes care of the region in same way that that group did, 25 years from now, we won't have the great institutions that we have because we'll have missed the opportunity to pursue them," said Welsh.
McKinsey's Jack Dempsey says some of the strongest interest comes from non-Minnesotans who found less civic cooperation here than they'd seen in other regions.
"Almost any CEO we've talked to that's been elsewhere at some point, or has operations elsewhere and they spend time there, they see a big gap in what's going on here. They're the ones who are most compelling about it [being] time for business and government and the University to work together and step up and play a leadership role," said Dempsey.
One issue the group is expected to take on this year is focusing government leaders' attention on retaining and growing the region's current leading employers. That may sound self-serving, but Sean Kershaw of the Citizens League agrees that economic development efforts often take existing employers for granted. Still, the group's self interest is evident, he says.
"They're trying to attract the best and the brightest from all over the world to a region where it was ten below this morning. And they need to know that there's a strong museum, that there's a great theatre culture here, they need to know that their employees are not going to be wasting 45 minutes each way on the interstate. It's pure self-interest. But it's pure self-interest that happens to be in the common interest of the region," said Kershaw.
Kershaw hopes the project is part of a renaissance of civic engagement in the Twin Cities--updated for busier times. The Itasca Project is slated to run for two years.