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

Lou Glazer

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.

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Tue, 05/22/2018 - 7:26am

"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."

We don't have "progressive" minded business leaders in Michigan, instead we have reactionary and narrow minded people in control of state govt. that only care about cost cutting at everything they can influence with the disaster results we have right now.

Doug D
Tue, 05/22/2018 - 10:47am

Good job again Lou. And I add my personal experience: my oldest son, wife and 2 kids continue their strong attachment to the metro area. Good neighborhoods, good transportation, great schools, and good jobs neither one of them planned on when they met in grad school at the U.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 05/22/2018 - 1:15pm

So here are the problems with this "recipe":

1.) If college is for everyone, then why is this a growing problem?


2.) Regional collaboration is yet another polite way of saying "bailout". When you subscribe to the failed notion of "from each according to their ability (Suburbs) to each according to their need (Detroit)", you will NEVER have a successful city when you continually rescue them from the consequences of their poor choice in leadership (i.e. City Bankruptcy, DPS, GLWA, etc.).



3.) Mass transit has never, and will never, become self-sustaining when you need to compel people to support your venture by making them pay for something that they do not use as an integral part of your overall business model. With over a century of knowledge in that area to draw from, one would think that they would've gotten it to work by now.


4.) Tell me again how that whole "welcoming to all"-bit is working in Europe? I understand that things are working out great in countries like Sweden. That is, if you don't mind no-go zones because of your new "guests".



Strange how they don't have similar problems in Poland and Hungary.


And since when do we think that it is acceptable to tell people how to think and what to believe?

America doesn't have thought police. That should never change.


5.) Cannot really address the "leadership" angle, when you don't know exactly what it is local business leaders have done?


And that problem is not just limited to only here in Michigan.


Michele Strasz
Tue, 05/22/2018 - 7:29pm

While I agree with Mr. Glazer that all these things are necessary to be more successful, I am always troubled that Michigan looks to the Twin Cities as a comparison model. I moved to the Twin Cities in high school from Detroit. From my experience, the lack of economic and racial diversity, and the diversified economy that is not dependent on the auto industry are nothing in comparison with our history in Michigan. Minnesota has always been one of the leaders in overall childhood well-being. Michigan is either in the middle of the road or at the bottom across the county. We cannot make progress on educational attainment if we do not deal with some of the underlying problems of poverty, racism, and urban decay.

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 8:14am

"Metropolitan Minneapolis ...., is considered by many to be one of the best places to live in the country." Basing an article on on some study at snap shot in time, whose criteria is based on a bunch of subjective criteria and selected points to skew a certain point of view or conclusion is another silly waste of time that Bridge should skip. Holding up the Twin cities as a paradise while ignoring the economic shifts that sheltered them from the same forces hit Michigan serves no productive purposes or yields any useful conclusions. For instance MN has a huge agribusiness sector that boomed at the same time that Michigan's manufacturing automotive sectors cratered. Should MN be given credit for their location relative to the grain belt? Or Mi blamed for allowing Henry Ford to do his thing? States clearly develop their own paths and yes cultures, sometimes this is for the better, sometimes not. But no matter what it does Michigan won't be Minnesota to many differences and history. In the case of everyone of your 5 points my community can show significant efforts, a sensible amount of collaboration exists on a significant scale, philanthropist business leaders, a red ink puking mass transit system, and seemingly no shortage of recent immigrants, so no thanks I'm not interested in the high taxes and high cost of living.

Steve Barnaby
Fri, 05/25/2018 - 10:20pm

Having spent the past 24 years living and working in major cities around the world and the United States reinforces the challenges that metro Detroit and Michigan face. Michigan continues to be a divided community economically, ethnically, regionally and racially. It was no surprise that despite the rich package offered Amazon, it swept us aside. I can think of a dozen or more metro areas that are much more desirable. Think of the corporate executive who deplanes at Metro airport to first discover the limited options to travel throughout the region--no trains, no trams, no shuttles, unlike just about every other airport in the world. Until recently only filthy, expensive and unreliable taxis predominated. Thank heavens for Uber and Lyft, which, of course, are no thanks to Michigan business or political leadership. If renting a vehicle, our CEO's introduction would very likely be a crumbling Eureka Rd. Unaware of the speed limit, that CEO's chances of being greeted by the infamous speed trap manned by the Romulus police at the intersection of Eureka and I-275 is high (the corner that collects more revenue than any other speed trap in Michigan). Oh well, perhaps the $300 ticket can be written off as a travel expense. If traveling to downtown Detroit, the CEO first look at the city is a tour of the once majestic and diverse Detroit neighborhoods and housing stock (remember the city of affordable housing for every income level, all but gone?) now littered with charred,deteriorating houses and mile upon mile of empty lots strewn with garbage, glass, tires and the homeless heading to shelters. If metro Detroit leadership can be accused of anything, it collaborated hardily in creating a city of poverty, populated by residents left to their own devices, with a school system left in ruin . "Where will my employees live," the CEO asks. He first heads to the inner ring of suburbs and soon discovers that the word has gotten out among the locals. Dearborn ("no, too many Muslim"), Farmington Hills ("its getting to be like Southfield, rapidly inhabited by you know who. Same for Redford and certainly Livonia will be next.") Our CEO is a quick study, noting that the M 1 rail doesn't even make it to the northern suburbs. "And how are my employees going to get from Ann Arbor, Brighton, Birmingham and Rochester ? That's right, I do remember reading that the regional leadership couldn't agree on a transit system," the CEO muses. Driving a private vehicle certainly doesn't seem like much of an option. Insurance rate are sky high and the CEO drive emphasizes that Eureka Rd. isn't the only crumbling road asset in the area. I love my state, moved back from California believing Michigan was a place I could build a personal and business future. Well, the personal worked out just find. But through the years it became very obvious that when it came to business, Michigan was and is stuck. Throughout my 24 years as a business owner and entrepreneur, I spent most of the time working in Europe, Asia as well as the East and West coasts of the U.S. where new ideas were sought after and welcomed. My business prospered--but not in Michigan where anything new or out of the ordinary was rejected. A lot of it had to do with the stranglehold the auto industry has on this state. The American auto industry has only proven to be innovative when forced to be by outside competition or government regulation. This caution infects the entire business community. Because my roots are in Michigan I stayed. After all I was only an air trip or internet connection away from a business opportunity. I love the Great Lakes, the rolling forests, the Porcupine Mountains, Mackinac Island and many more places. I have bicycled extensively throughout the state. But I fear for the state's future. Urban sprawl continues eating up the open spaces leaving behind discarded cities, rotting infrastructure, water that is unsafe to drink and fish too unhealthy to consume. I fear the same mentality that transformed a once thriving Detroit into zone of neglect and poverty will spread throughout the state. After all Flint just didn't happen. Neither did Pontiac, Benton Harbor, Muskegon or Lake County. Our inland lakes just didn't happen to become polluted on their own. The same can be said for the jewel of the midwest, the Great Lakes, the existence of which are threatened. It was leadership or the lack thereof from both political and business--and it was bipartisan. It will take much more than a new sports complex or a downtown district that is a pale imitation of most other thriving cities. It will take a new mentality populated by those willing to set aside their cultural biases and fears and who are willing to collaborate for the benefit of all Michigander, not just their tribe. My guess? We have a long way to go before we get there.

Sat, 05/26/2018 - 6:39am

My son married and moved to the Twin City area five years ago and needless to say we've spent a lot of time there. Although I detest the fact that they are so far away from us, I'm glad they are living there. You can actually see the differences in the wellbeing of the communities as you drive around the area as compared to our state. Sad really that the people in "charge" here think you can cut your way to prosperity when the FACT is you can't.

George Moroz
Sun, 05/27/2018 - 7:03pm

We've long known what the "recipe" for regional success and progress is, but it takes committed and visionary leaders to bake that meal. Michigan is more like fast-food. Short-sighted, non-diverse, bad for our health, but available on the cheap. We all know the result to which that diet will lead.