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Opinion | 5 lessons Michigan cities can learn from the Twin Cities

Metropolitan Minneapolis, the nation’s 16th largest region, is considered by many to be one of the best places to live in the country.

Why should we in Michigan care? Our state’s metro areas, including Detroit and Grand Rapids, are striving to achieve many of the results that metro Minneapolis has accomplished. Michigan’s business, governmental and community leaders talk almost daily about the need to improve education, build transit, revitalize urban neighborhoods and produce higher-paying jobs.

Metro Minneapolis offers a roadmap to get there.

The Twin Cities rank at or near the top among the nation’s large metro areas in a variety of livability measures, including per capita income, proportion of adults who work, educational attainment, transit, quality of government services, and amenities such as parks and bike trails.

Although it’s one of the wealthiest and most livable large metro areas in the country, metro Minneapolis didn’t attain that status overnight. A decades-long focus on public investment in education, transit, parks, cultural amenities and environmental protection are key ingredients in producing vibrant core cities and strong surrounding suburbs.

Progressive business leaders who believe the region’s vitality is dependent on far more than the bottom lines of their own companies also have contributed to the well-being of the Twin Cities. They have engaged in a variety of crucial work, including transit, education from birth through college and now trying to narrow racial achievement gaps and boost workforce development.

State policies, many of them dating back some 50 years, have allowed metro Minneapolis to build a regional approach to governing that provides efficient, cost-effective services such as transit and wastewater treatment.

Michigan Future’s new report – “Regional Collaboration Matters, How Metro Minneapolis has forged one of the wealthiest and most livable metropolitan areas in the United States” – is a deep dive into the choices metro Minneapolis has made over the last 40 years that have transformed it from a troubled patchwork of communities into the Great Lakes’ most prosperous region.

For years Michigan Future has used Minnesota as a comparison state, because it is the Great Lakes state (taking weather and the excuse that Michigan can’t be like the coasts off the table) that has enjoyed the best economic outcomes, by far.

The difference in economic outcomes between Minnesota and Michigan can largely be explained by the superior performance of metro Minneapolis compared to metro Detroit and metro Grand Rapids. Metro Minneapolis is 12th in per capita income among the 53 regions with a population of one million or more, best among the Great Lakes states.

Metro Detroit is 30th, metro Grand Rapids 38th.

What is the metro Minneapolis recipe for success?

1. Talent as THE economic priority

Some regions of the country compete for jobs and investment by cutting taxes and easing regulations on business. Others tout a low cost of living, non-union labor and plenty of warm sunshine to lure workers and businesses.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, talent development has long been the key ingredient in growing a metro economy that is one of the most vibrant in the country. Metro Minneapolis leadership understood decades ago that the regions with the highest education attainment––particularly those with a four-year degree or more––would be the most prosperous, by creating and attracting the most good-paying jobs.

2. Regional collaboration

An elusive goal in many metropolitan areas, regional collaboration is on steroids in the Twin Cities. The seven-county Minneapolis metro area has been providing key governmental services, including wastewater treatment and transit, regionally for decades through what experts say is a unique entity called the Metropolitan Council.

Another unique aspect of regional collaboration in the Twin Cities region is a tax-base-sharing program known as Fiscal Disparities that requires nearly 200 local entities to share a portion of property tax dollars generated by industrial and commercial growth in the metro area.

The program redistributes hundreds of millions of dollars a year among communities, schools and special taxing districts in an effort to even the tax burden across the metro area, reduce competition among communities for commercial and industrial development, and ease pressure to develop land better suited for recreation and open space.

3. Transit

Metro Minneapolis features one of the best transit operations in the country, a system known as Metro Transit that provides more than 80 million rides a year using buses, trains and vans. But transit in the Twin Cities is about more than getting people to where they want or need to go. Many, led by business leaders, see transit as a crucial element in maintaining and expanding the metro area’s economic vitality.

4. Welcoming to all

Being welcoming – including to immigrants and the LGBTQ community – is a key component of  the metro Minneapolis economic prosperity strategy. When Minnesota became among the first states to legalize same-sex marriage in 2013, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak started an ad campaign to urge same-sex couples to get married in his city in an effort to boost tourism revenue. The region is home to the highest number of refugees per capita in the country. They’ve come from dozens of countries and many have settled in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Michigan, by contrast, refuses to pass civil rights laws to protect the LGBTQ community, and the Legislature has rejected efforts by Gov. Rick Snyder to become more friendly to immigrants.

5. Business leadership

Most, if not all, major metropolitan areas have business organizations that promote the economic well-being of their region. But the Itasca Project serving Minnesota’s Twin Cities is different from just about any such organization in the country. This group of more than 60 corporate chief executive officers and community leaders spends little time on traditional business concerns, such as tax rates and government regulations.

Itasca describes itself as a business-executive-led organization that demands consideration for “all other perspectives” and takes a long-term view, “peering decades into the future rather than just the next legislative session.” It prioritizes “regional vitality over business self-interest” and is willing to “take on issues that are inherently difficult to resolve.”

What the Twin Cities have accomplished hasn’t been easy or without controversy. But the results are impressive and should serve as a model for how Michigan and its regions can return to high prosperity.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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