The future of the Midwest may be taking shape in some unlikely places, out of the view of most pundits, by people who are tired of letting someone else determine how they will live and have decided to do it themselves.
One of these places is called The 7 Rivers Region, where parts of southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota and northeastern Iowa come together. It's an extraordinary beautiful area, clustered around the towering bluffs and watery sweep of the Mississippi River valley, south of the Twin Cities and north of Dubuque. The region's core is the two towns of LaCrosse, Wisconsin and Winona, Minnesota -- both pleasant and prosperous little cities but not exactly the top of the agenda when economic planners meet these days.
Those planners should take another look. The 7 Rivers people are pioneering the concept of regionalism -- the idea that, in a global economy, individual cities and states are too small to compete, so can thrive only by leveraging their assets in broader regions. They haven't exactly seceded from their states, but they're linking arms across the Mississippi to promote their region, without waiting for Madison, St. Paul or Des Moines to do it for them.
This regional idea is catching on across the Midwest. Wisconsin has a number of them. Thirty-eight counties in southern Minnesota have formed an economic region to try to link their agricultural riches with the bio and medical powerhouses at the Mayo Clinic and the Hormel Institute, as is described in Mark Drabenstott's Heartland Paper, "Past Silos and Smokestacks: Transforming the Rural Economy in the Midwest." Groups of counties in Iowa and Indiana have formed regional clusters. Western Michigan works well together as a region, as does the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids corridor in Iowa.
But it's a tough concept to put into practice. The main problem is the sheer difficulty of working across artificial political lines, be they county lines or state borders. These smaller political entities are used to working on their own, usually in competition with the folks next door. Each has its own bureaucracy and tax bases, which means that regionalism has to trample on some jealously-guarded political turf.
The 7 Rivers Region has taken on this challenge. For one thing, it encompasses all or parts of 17 counties but doesn't pay much attention to county lines. If half of a county fits into the region and the other half doesn't, that's fine. For another thing, it crosses state lines -- three of them, in fact. If there are other effective multi-state regions in the Midwest, I don't know about them.
I was in LaCrosse and Winona recently (happily, in the autumn when the trees were turning) and talked with people there about how this region works.
First, they said, it has geographic cohesion. It's part of the so-called driftless region, an area of rolling hills and deep river valleys that the glaciers didn't reach in the last Ice Age. Valley-dwellers everywhere seem to form a sort of community, coupled with a coolness to the outside world, and this sense of community exists here. (The driftless region extends further south into northwestern Illinois, around Galena: I asked why this Illinois segment didn't belong but got no good answer.)
In short, the people in the region feel comfortable with each other and are used to daily mixing. Making it official by creating the Region, is building on what's already there.
Second, there seems to be a traditional social cohesion. In some places, like the Quad Cities further south, a big river like the Mississippi can be an almost unbridgeable divide. Not here. Residents of the 7 Rivers Region say they cross the river all the time to shop, work, go to school, eat out. If the Mississippi here is stupendous geographically, it seems to be no big deal socially.
Third, there's an economic cohesion. People in the region have always done business together. The region shares many of the same industries and a similar agricultural base, with the river as a connecting link. If some of the original heavy industry has gone away, it has been replaced, especially by health-related companies. I was told that there's still a good deal of rivalry between LaCrosse and Winona, but nothing so crippling as, say, the rivalry between Davenport in Iowa and Rock Island/Moline on the Illinois side.
Fourth, it's a prosperous area, which helps a lot. It's much easier to cooperate and share when there's enough to go around. Even in these recession days, the unemployment rate there is 5.5 percent, about half the national average. Downtowns appear solid, and the center of LaCrosse has evolved into a first-rate entertainment area.
The region already has much of what a healthy region needs and is anxious to build on it. It's about halfway between the Twin Cities and Madison. It lies astride I-90, which cuts across southern Minnesota, and seems to have more affinity with Rochester than with Minneapolis. More important, it has good educational assets -- a University of Wisconsin branch in LaCrosse, a University of Minnesota branch called Winona State, a good private university called Viterbo, technical and community colleges. The schools already collaborate with businesses, to produce the workers that these businesses need. I heard that they probably should collaborate more with each other: there seems to be some overlap and duplication in mission and teaching. It has a flourishing arts scene and some good restaurants.
Like everywhere else, the region needs to keep its best young people, hold on to the graduates of its schools and draw in smart and creative people from outside. In an era when young people are flocking to the big cities like Minneapolis, this is a challenge for more isolated and smaller communities. The 7 Rivers Region has great scenery, which helps, and good schools and growing companies. What it needs now is more good jobs -- jobs that require two-year or four-year college educations, and this is what the organizers of the Region are promoting.
I was there for a conference that brought together government officials, planners, economic development activists and -- unusual for this kind of meeting -- business people. Too often, business people shun this kind of regional or promotional work. In a global era, regions need the active involvement of business people, who usually have a clearer idea of what the global economy demands.
Those state and county lines aren't going to go away. But the Region seems anxious to increase joint marketing, support entrepreneuralism at home and firm up links between businesses and schools.
I suggested to them that they expand their region, to hook onto the assets in booming Dubuque, to the south, in Rochester to the west, and in Madison to the east. That's quite a stretch. In the cantankerous Midwest, getting 17 counties working together is already a feat. Extending the reach to Rochester or Madison may have to wait a while.