Three states – Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana – came together in Chicago’s Loop recently to talk about their common future. They didn’t decide anything and the conversation itself revealed how far they have to go. But this meeting simply wouldn’t have happened two years ago, and that’s progress in itself.
The meeting attracted the often-warring governors of the three states. Not that they were all there at the same time, or even shook hands. But their presence at least endorsed the idea that the three-state Chicago region might gain more from cooperation than cut-throat competition – and that wouldn’t have happened two years ago, either.
The eventual goal is to create a single, high-powered 21-county regional economy stretching from Milwaukee south through Chicago into northwestern Indiana. Right now, the region is incredibly balkanized, with virtually no cooperation across state lines. But a major “territorial review” last year from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said this has to be reversed if Chicago and its region are to compete in the global economy.
The report saw many areas for potential cooperation – transportation (the region is the rail and air hub of the nation), green economy, work force, and especially the huge economic potential of the region’s common asset, Lake Michigan.
But the report noted that there is virtually no institution linking the region’s three states and many towns, nor any mechanism for institutionalized cooperation. One of the OECD economists who worked on the report said that he had done territorial reviews all over the world and had never seen the political “hostility” – that was the word he used – that is the norm between the state governments of Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.
The report led to the formation of the Alliance for Regional Development. Based at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the Alliance’s mandate is to overcome or work around that hostility to promote serious economic development cooperation among the cities and counties that rim the southern edge of Lake Michigan.
The Alliance has been in business a little over a year, and its Summit on Regional Competitiveness, held at the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank, was its first big show. It proved that cooperation not only is necessary but possible, that a lot of people want it to happen and that even that tri-state political hostility need not be a barrier.
In fact, the political representation was top drawer. All three governors came – Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Mike Pence of Indiana and Pat Quinn of Illinois – plus some of their economic development aides.
Of the three, Walker was the most enthusiastic about regional cooperation. He noted that some of the region’s major industries – advanced manufacturing, agriculture, food processing, water technology and clean energy – reach global markets but, by their nature, span state lines.
Wisconsin leads the region in freshwater-based industries, but seems ready to share this growing market with its neighbors. Some 150 water engineering companies belong to the Water Council, a Milwaukee-based organization which changed its name from the Milwaukee Water Council to stress the regional nature of the industry: it now includes some Illinois companies, Walker said.
Walker startled the audience when he was asked how this region should brand itself. It’s the Great Lakes that “bind us together,” he said, but he acknowledged that, in the greater global market, Chicago defines the region.
“Anywhere else I go around the world, people understand where Chicago is,” he said, “and so it’s a compelling point for us.”
In the normal course of business, Midwestern governors never say such nice things about neighboring states. Walker has spent much of his tenure trying to lure companies and jobs from Illinois, but there he was, up on the stage, acknowledging that a healthy Chicago is critical to a healthy Chicago region.
For Indiana’s Pence, saying something nice about the region was harder work, but he managed.
“I get up every day thinking how to make Indiana more prosperous,” he admitted. “This is not a regional reflex.
“But now we work with Illinois to make a more prosperous region,” he said, not mentioning how the Indiana state government posted signs on the state line urging “Illinoyed” businesses to move to Indiana.
“Maybe we can work collaboratively to tell our story,” he said. But asked if he would agree with Walker that the world thinks of Chicago when it thinks of this region, he said the Indianapolis 500 was more like it.
By contrast, Illinois’ Quinn, the governor of the state that has the most to gain from a truly regional economy, talked like the candidate for re-election that he is, bragging about Illinois and ignoring the other states. If Wisconsin and Indiana think Illinois ignores them, Quinn reinforced that belief.
Quinn’s panel dealt with transport, an area that, as the OECD report pointed out, suffers from the failure of the three states to coordinate traffic and planning. One of Quinn’s co-panelists, the Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino, recited reams of details and statistics of Chicago’s airports, especially O’Hare, while never even mentioning the Gary Airport, a potential third airport for the region, or Milwaukee’s busy Mitchell Field.
So much for a regional approach to transport.
Once past the politics, the summit focused on potential areas of regional cooperation. Most of this dealt with exchanges of information, but again this represents a huge advance, in the Chicago region and in the Midwest, over the mutual incomprehension and disdain that has dominated the region.
Speakers talked about a regional upgrading of workers’ skills, especially an agreement that credentials from colleges in each state to be accepted in the other two. Others urged universities and companies in the region to work together to promote the water industry, or called for a regional approach to a transport infrastructure.
The politician who most exemplified the interstate “hostility” toward the OECD report was a former Indiana commerce secretary named Mitch Roob. So it was important that Roob’s successor, Victor Smith, came to the meeting not to bury regionalism but to praise it.
Smith agreed that state governments “are paid to talk about ourselves, so it’s not natural to talk regionally. But we’re trying to do that.” Indiana, he said, has prosperous industrial clusters – in bioscience, for instance—and “regionally, we can make connections.”
Smith didn’t spell out what he had in mind. But what we heard was that both Indiana and Wisconsin see the virtue in a three-state coordination focused on Chicago. If Chicago and Illinois can be persuaded to accept this flattery, we might see real progress.