I spent the last week in Galena, a gem of an old Victorian town, nestled in the hills and forests of the so-called Driftless Area, in northeast Illinois near the Mississippi River Valley. I came away thinking how this area could be more than the beautiful but generally depressed region it is now.
Galena itself seems to be doing fine. It is a tourism and second-home mecca, packed with good restaurants and refugees from Chicago. But the Driftless Area itself is divided between four states and some 25 to 35 counties, depending on where you draw the boundaries. None of these jurisdictions -- not the states nor the counties -- has been able to work with the others to leverage the region's scenic potential and combat the economic distress that, like the scenery, they all share.
Most outsiders think of the Midwest as one big flat cornfield. Much of the region lives up to this conception. But the Driftless Area is a dramatic region of deep river valleys, rolling hills, rocky outcroppings, caves and dense timberland.
"Driftless Area" is an odd name and says more about what the region is than it isn't. It's the region in the Upper Misssissippi Valley that escaped the glaciers that flattened much of the rest of the Midwest. Instead, it's landscape was carved by rivers big and small, leaving behind little of the glacial "drift," the silt, clay and other material left behind by receding glaciers.
The result is a rugged area with more small towns than cities, more small farms than factories. Ethnic ties remain strong: the little Iowa town of Spillville, where Antonin Dvorak conceived his American Quartet, is still an outpost of Czech culture. It is probably the most beautiful single area in the Midwest but, compared to other tourist draws like Indiana's Brown County and Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula, little known.
Unlike the Grand Canyon, the Driftless Area announces itself slowly and its boundaries are vague. It includes parts of four states -- southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and the northwestern tip of Illinois. Technically it stretches from the southeastern suburban sprawl of St. Paul-Minneapolis down to Waterloo in Iowa and past Dubuque to western fringe of Madison, Wisconsin's capital. This gives it nine counties in Minnesota, sixteen in Wisconsin, eight in Iowa, and part of three in Illinois.
In truth, it's more compact than that. Its core embraces twelve counties in Wisconsin, perhaps five in Minnesota, a half dozen in Iowa, and one or two counties in Illinois. Its cities (50,000 people or more) are Rochester in Minnesota, LaCrosse in Wisconsin, Dubuque in Iowa, and that's it.
I've traveled enough in the Driftless Area, in all four states, to know that the residents would love to put their scenic beauty to some economic use. But by and large, they seem unaware that they share this beauty and ambition with the other states and have no idea how to work with across state lines for their mutual benefit.
One big problem is the states themselves. All four states have their own competing tourism programs, run from the state capitals, which see tourism as a zero-sum game, never thinking that a tourist who lodges in Wisconsin, say, might cross the Mississippi for some recreation in Iowa. Local officials who'd like to cooperate with the folks across the state line say they are stymied by state governments, especially legislatures, who would never dream of spending a tourism dime that just might benefit some other state.
(Actually, the states do cooperate on projects to protect the natural environment in the Area. But like much of the work going on around the Great Lakes, these projects are devoted to preservation for wild life, not jobs for the people who live there.)
Most county policies seem equally jealous and short-sighted. Jo Daviess County, where Galena is located, does a good job of promoting itself to tourists but spends little time boosting Dubuque, even though most tourists would have to drive through Galena to get to Dubuque and might even stop for the night.
As with tourism, so with economic development in general. If cities like Rochester and Dubuque are prospering, most towns and villages in the Driftless Area are shriveling. It would be a great place to live, for families as well as retirees, if there were jobs, good schools, and good stores. But like so much of these Midwest, the towns and counties of the Driftless Area largely lack these necessary magnets and are too small to campaign effectively to get them.
Once again, states are no help. With Midwestern governors fighting each other for investment, they aren't likely to join forces to promote economic development in their most job-hungry regions.
So if the Driftless Area and its people are going to thrive in the global era, they're on their own.
Every town and city in the Midwest faces this governmental parochialism, both state and local. But some have energized their economy despite these governmental barriers, and the residents of the Driftless Area could take a tip from these success stories.
First, don't wait for government to take the lead. It can't and won't. Governments are elected to serve their state or town, not states or towns next door. Governments can help, but they can't lead.
Instead, regionally-minded leaders and institutions -- college or university officials, economic development professionals, business people, community colleges, churches -- should identify like-minded stakeholders in other parts of the Area and get a conversation going. They'd be surprised how much they have in common.
Actual projects can start small and get bigger. This could mean some joint marketing of the region for tourism, without reference to state tourist agencies. It could mean a joint festival, such as a food festival or a music festival, that could bring outside tourists to the entire region: both Illinois and Iowa benefit from the annual Bix Beiderbecke festival in Davenport. It could mean common efforts to develop a small region, like some of the bluffs along the Mississippi, and market it together.
Or it could mean joint marketing for economic development, drawing on Dubuque's success in attracting a big IBM center. It could mean the community colleges of the region working together to teach skills needed for certain industries, like the joint academic efforts promoting the health industry in the LaCrosse-Winona area. It could mean using the region's base in dairy farming for agribusiness industries.
These are a few ideas, by no means exhaustive. Mostly, it will require forward-looking citizens talking and planning together.
This isn't easy. Overcoming ingrained local suspicions never is. These citizens will need a mutually-acceptable neutral meeting place. They may need to hire an outside "coach," a facilitator skilled in promoting these conversations. Mostly, it will take time: building a new economy always does.
This, in turn, will take money -- probably private money, not government funds. This means raising capital from local families, perhaps persuading wealthy families to invest in a foundation that could lead this process. This is more possible than it sounds: I was impressed by the ability of private citizens in Galena to raise money to endow parks and other amenities. Governments that would shun citizens seeking public funds will give a warmer welcome to citizens who bring their own money to the table.
In the global era, size counts. Strictly local initiatives start with a heavy handicap. Seeking out friends and collaborators pays off, even in such a divided region as the Driftless Area.