The drive to reorganize the Midwest into economically sensible regions moves ahead slowly, but it does move. I was reminded of this recently when I spent time with people working to make it happen in northwestern Illinois, a beautiful backwater that is trying to figure out its future.
The core organization here is the Tri-County Economic Development Alliance (TCEDA), which embraces all or part of three counties just east of the Mississippi River. TCEDA held its first annual meeting on a bluff high above the river, and I came away with two thoughts:
- They’ve still got a long way to go, but:
- The thinking and talking I heard there wouldn’t have happened five years ago.
TCEDA is trying to get Carroll, Whiteside, and Jo Daviess counties to work as one unit. The region is barely a speck on the Midwestern map, but it hangs together in its unique geography, its farm-and-tourism-based economy, its demographics, even its relatively progressive politics. If you think that neighborly cooperation between the region’s towns and counties would be easy, you’ve never watched two rural school districts trying to consolidate.
So the fact that 100 local leaders—from business as well as government and NGOs—spent a day discussing their strengths and how to leverage them together was a milestone. Until recently, this just wouldn’t have happened. Clearly, the impact of globalization has reached out from the cities into once-independent rural areas, and has focused minds.
The challenge now is to keep the momentum going—and to think bigger, across the river and across nearby state lines.
Regional economic development is an idea whose time has come to the Midwest. Chicago, Milwaukee, and northern Indiana are talking about turning themselves into a single economic region around the foot of Lake Michigan. Cleveland and its suburbs are planning together. The two Kansas Cities are talking, and so are St. Louis and the Illinois counties to its east. Several Wisconsin areas have found they have common economic assets—the New North, for instance, in wind turbine technology, or the Seven Rivers region, in health care—and are leveraging these assets.
Uniting TCEDA and its neighbors will be harder. First, there is little history of collaboration: even Galena, the atmospheric old town that is the heart of the region, has not one but two competing tourism agencies. Second, the three Illinois counties are but one corner of a larger, four-state area that stretches into Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
This is the Driftless Area, so-called because it is the only part of the Midwest that was not flattened by the glaciers of the Ice Age. Elsewhere, the glaciers created the ideal Midwestern landscape for big farming, fast trains, broad highways, and big factories. The Driftless Area, by contrast, is mostly hills and valleys, small towns and narrow horizons, carved by streams and rivers over millennia.
It even has downhill skiing. The TCEDA conference took place at a ski resort above the Mississippi called Chestnut Mountain Lodge. It may have been the first day of spring but the Midwestern winter hung on, with bundled skiers schussing down the snow-covered slopes just outside the meeting hall.
The heart of the Driftless Area covers about 25 counties, about half of them in southwestern Wisconsin. Put together, it’s probably the most beautiful area in the Midwest. But they’ve never been put together, mostly because they’re in four states—Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, all with their own legislatures, governors, economic development bodies, and tourist promotion budgets.
These different political jurisdictions and economic promoters would never dream of working together. At least they haven’t until now, but they’re beginning to realize that the 21st century and the global economy are leaving this lovely region behind, taking away its best young people (school populations are declining almost everywhere) while bequeathing it an aging population of retirees and second-home owners who, like tourists, are not exactly the basis for a thriving economy.
At the TCEDA meeting, participants were asked to look hard at their region, count its assets, and plot its future.
One speaker, whose business advises communities on luring outside companies to move in, told the region that this sort of recruitment is the way to go. Wisely, most participants rejected this expensive and usually futile advice and focused on “economic gardening”—that is, the care and nurturing of home-grown start-up businesses, the sort of small enterprises that can become both big companies and solid corporate citizens.
The three-county area is a farming region, so bioscience and biotech industries loomed large in conversations, as did industries linked to food production. So did the natural gas pipeline running through the region, a lure for businesses which need this resource. The Mississippi River is still a major artery for bulk shipments, which continues to draw industries to river cities such as Dubuque and Clinton, both in Iowa. Fulton, a small town in Whiteside County, supports companies that supply these industries, and other parts of the region could do the same—a process that involves looking for opportunities across county lines.
The TCEDA area lacks any post-secondary school. Rock Valley College in Rockford theoretically has responsibility for this region, because they’re both in Illinois. Dubuque in Iowa and Platteville in Wisconsin have four-year colleges, are closer, and so are the natural local educational resources. But because both are in other states, they don’t get used by the TCEDA region as much as they should. Participants at the meeting suggested closer ties to these excellent schools, in hopes they would provide the skills and ideas that could revive the local economy.
Everyone agreed that what the region really needs is decent access to Chicago. At the moment, the four-lane US-20 through northern Iowa ends before it gets to Galena and becomes a winding two-lane road for almost 50 miles. This makes it both scenic and a bottleneck, effectively chasing away any business or investor who needs efficient access to the Chicago market.
A proper four-lane highway would do both environmental damage and economic good. The participants at TCEDA clearly favored the economic argument. But it’s not going to be simple. Many local residents chose the region for its beauty, not its job opportunities, and can be expected to fight any highway expansion.
Some local residents urge a “heritage corridor,” uniting the four-state Driftless Area for both tourism and economic development. Like most obvious ideas, this one is just barely getting off the ground so far, but the fact that it’s even under discussion is an advance in itself.