Regionalism, from merging police departments to forging multicounty economic development agreements, is a painful exercise. Northeast Ohio is no stranger to the frustrations generated by a history of autonomous, fragmented units of local government, institutional inertia and rampant parochialism.
Yet pushing ahead may be the only option for major metropolitan areas.
The reasons, positive and negative, are noted in a report called “America’s Metro Regions Take Center Stage,” the subject of a Neal Peirce column (“Eight reasons why metro regions are taking center stage,” April 30). The report is from the Citistates Group, a network of journalists, among them Peirce, and others interested in building equitable, sustainable urban areas.
First, the positive side. The report makes clear that the nation’s major metropolitan areas are the most powerful demographic and economic units in the country.
The largest 100 metropolitan regions represent 66 percent of the nation’s population and an even larger share of its economy, according to the report.
More, the major institutions needed to power growth, banks, large corporations, think tanks and research universities, are almost all located in metropolitan regions.
But even the pressure of rapid economic change, much of it forced by automation and globalization, has just started to get Northeast Ohio moving in the right direction, embracing economic growth through joint efforts and long-term planning, with a large role for the public sector.
The good news is that as major institutions find common ground, they can build on each other’s strengths to grow new companies and expand old ones, not compete against each other.
Still, there is no getting around the negatives, also noted in a recent interview with E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University.
Whether it is a state university system working to reorganize itself in more efficient and effective ways, or local governments and businesses charting a new course, the point is the same: Don’t count on help from the state and federal governments.
Gee’s viewpoint was somewhat darker than Peirce’s.
The report focused on federal policy “barely catching up” with what metropolitan regions need and state governments that “often support their urban regions even less.”
Gee pointed to what appear to be chronic pressures to balance budgets in Washington and Columbus, pressures that will leave state universities (and regions) to fend for themselves, finding their own solutions and the resources to make them work.
Complicating matters further, Gee said, is an increasingly partisan political atmosphere smothering Washington, which he called “an unreliable partner” for higher ed.
Whether it is a disconnect between policymakers at various levels of government, a lack of money or political infighting, for regions, the result is the same: They will have to retool themselves to grow and prosper.
So, how is Northeast Ohio doing?
The Citistates Group report praises Northeast Ohio’s efforts at regional economic planning, by, among others, the Fund for Our Economic Future, a collaboration of philanthropies working to strengthen the region’s competitiveness.
The fund is also pushing greater collaboration among local governments, a goal recently boosted in Northeast Ohio by the Obama administration’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities, involving the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.
A $4.25 million planning grant, awarded in late 2010, is helping support a regional planning effort in Northeast Ohio called the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, aimed at tackling a problem that is eating up more and more resources — suburban sprawl.
The core of the problem is that the region’s population declined by 7 percent from 1970 to 2010 while suburban development surged, gobbling up hundreds of square miles of land as cities declined.
That means unsustainable costs for infrastructure and administrative overhead, not to mention increased difficulties in getting local governments on the same track.
A report is due in June, and it better be good. Besides the blowback from suburban communities where “sprawl” also means “taxes and jobs,” the Partnership for Sustainable Communities initiative fell victim to congressional spending cuts this year. Talk about an “unreliable partner.”
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.