Collaboration is one way in which Virginia localities and institutions can work together to address economic development and social issues, but competition between differing groups can hinder results.
“Even though Virginia is a fantastic state and we get a lot of things done, we could use some advice on regional collaboration,” said Jim Cheng, a former Virginia commerce and trade secretary.
Cheng was moderator of a panel on collaboration on the last day of the Hometown Summit at the Tom Tom Founders Festival. The event featured a discussion of how collaborations in Ohio, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin have fared.
“I’m here to learn,” said Cheng.
Industry in the Cleveland metropolitan area faltered in the late 20th century, and one group of philanthropists banded together to form the Fund for Our Economic Future to address the region’s economic vitality.
“One of the secret weapons of legacy cities is that you have a history of philanthropy,” said Brad Whitehead, the fund’s president. “We have pooled our financial resources, and in the last 15 years, we have put together $120 million towards economic vibrancy.”
Whitehead said projects selected for the fund are generally ones that address systemic issues.
The same issue of economic disruption has affected the nation’s central Appalachian region, and a similar fund was formed to address the same issue there.
“West Virginia has been dependent on extractive industries, and that industry has been declining,” said Becky Ceperley, a consultant with the Appalachia Funders Network. “We have had an opportunity to transform our economy in the past, and it failed and we could not afford to have that happen again.”
Ceperley — who is also an at-large member of City Council in Charleston, West Virginia — said energy efficiency and food systems are examples of replacement industries that could develop in the area.
Another collaborative group is the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a civic organization of about 180 business leaders in and around that Wisconsin city. A subset of that group called The Commons convenes leaders from college and universities in the region to promote economic development.
“The goal of that program is a talent development and retention program,” said Mike Hostad, executive director of The Commons.
The Commons also seeks to solve issues that are common in urban communities that have seen population increases in recent years as previously unattractive cities have become magnets for the creative class.
“Milwaukee and the downtown area has seen tremendous growth, but there’s disparity between downtown and adjacent neighborhoods,” Hostad said. “We have neighborhoods that have lost 30,000 jobs in a matter of 15 to 20 years, and job growth has remained stagnant.”
Hostad said one example of collaboration has been an effort to diversify tax revenues for Wisconsin cities to make them less dependent on property taxes, which are among the highest in the nation.
The final speaker studies collaborations as part of her work as director of the Riley Center for Livable Communities at The College of Charleston in South Carolina.
“One of the things you first have to determine is whether collaboration is necessary,” said Kendra Stewart. “Not all problems require a group to solve them. Often, when collaboration is not successful is when it is forced.”
One of Stewart’s first jobs was with the South Carolina Budget and Control Board, where she helped get legislation passed to require localities to collaborate when developing transportation projects.
“We realized our communities weren’t connecting when they were planning their infrastructure,” Stewart said. “We created a state law that required all infrastructure projects to be planned together.”
Cheng pointed out that Commonwealth of Virginia has mandated regions to work together through the GO Virginia program. He wanted the panelists to offer thoughts on how collaborations could be successful.
Whitehead echoed Stewart’s comment that collaboration is not a panacea and participants must make sure they are in it for the right reasons.
“We’ve learned the hard way that collaboration is not a solution to mediocrity,” Whitehead said.
Ceperley said collaboration requires both a common vision and a common yearning to solve difficult problems.
“No one organization has created the intense social issues we’re dealing with,” Ceperley said. “You have to look at the systemic reason and you need to collaborate.”
Whitehead said addressing workforce development is an example of a problem that has taken over a decade for community members to get around the same table to address.
“You have to prepare the soil,” Whitehead said. “What we’ve learned is that it could be years to get the soil ready.”
Hostad said the key ingredient of a successful collaboration is trust.
“We’ve learned through our work with The Commons is that trust can be a difficult thing to gain, and it takes a lot of time,” Hostad said.