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Politicians Finally Embrace Need To Promote Region

By Dale Buss, Founder & Executive Director

A critical mass of forces finally may be understanding the benefits of what I’ve been advocating for years: that separate political actors in Flyover Country unite to promote our region as a whole, rather than our cities and states always competing with one another for the fruits of economic development and government favor.

The new dynamics are occurring in two key ways in the Upper Midwest, which is as good a place as any to start. We may soon be seeing several of the region’s governors begin to link arms to promote their states collectively to the growing industries behind the manufacturing revitalization of the heartland.

Also, national-level political leadership from here has caught on to fact that Flyover Country has been dealt out of any significant say in the leadership of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. And they want to change that.

As I told Nolan Finley, editorial-page editor of the Detroit News, for a column he posted recently, “There’s a level at which we are dismissed as a region. It’s true in every endeavor. Washington, D.C., controls the government. New York controls finance and marketing. [Hollywood] controls the culture and Silicon Valley controls Big Tech. We’re ringed by power centers.”

So, we must set up one or a handful of new “power centers” of our own, in a fresh strategy to ensure the economic future of Flyover Country. And the best way to do that in the political realm is for governments in our states and municipalities to band together.

Why Now

The need has long been there, but there’s new urgency for two reasons: the economic opportunities available now if we do this right, and the rather sudden recognition that has arisen in people who are in positions to do something about it.

This is not a new idea. The coasts really never have had to break a sweat to promote themselves regionally, given that they’ve controlled all of the power levers in this country. So, when investors as well as immigrants as well as tourists around the world think of America, their minds dart immediately to California or New York City, Washington, D.C., or Seattle, rather than to Pittsburgh or Omaha, Huntsville or Fargo.

But when Amazon was deciding several years ago where to put its “HQ2” — still the most-pursued economic-development prize in America’s history — the region that eventually won the project may have done so in large part because it took a collective approach to wooing the Seattle-based giant. Metro D.C. secured Amazon’s 20,000 new jobs in and around Arlington, Virginia, partly because a Greater Washington Partnership was able to get political ringleaders in the District of Columbia, northern Virginia and southern Maryland to work together to bring it about.

Steve Case should know. The founder of America Online, who’s based in D.C., has just come out with a book about the venture-capital barnstorming he’s done over the last several years across Flyover Country: The Rise of the Rest: How Entrepreneurs in Surprising Places are Building the New American Dream. It’s chock full of encouraging chronicles of the development of tech ecosystems around our region that are beginning to lure investments and people once destined only for the coasts.

And he saw why the Greater Washington Partnership was crucial in landing Amazon. “Even when we were growing AOL, there were fighting factions between Virginia and Maryland and D.C.,” Case told me. “These were zero-sum economic-development strategies. But they did a lot of work over the last decade as people thought about the region and concluded that it didn’t matter if you live in D.C., or Maryland, it was crazy not to think about the regional context.

“And that’s why Amazon chose northern Virginia for its second headquarters: The whole area was cooperating. Governors wrote letters to Amazon basically saying, ‘Irrespective of the specific place you pick, we will work together and make sure there’s the talent pipeline you need,’ and so forth.”

That’s where the governors of the Upper Midwest come in. Now that the mid-term elections are over, and every governor in the region who was up for re-election won another term, they’ve got the luxury and responsibility of re-focusing on the economic needs of their region.

And in a manufacturing- and technology-development opportunity laid before Flyover Country that is unmatched in history, most of the world’s biggest corporate players in microchips and automobiles — and their suppliers — have said they’re committed to investing tens of billions of dollars in new plants in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee to build multiple state-of-the-art plants that will establish America’s leadership in these crucial industries of the future.

Golden Opportunity

It's incumbent upon these governors to make the absolute most of the golden geese that are being presented to their states and cities, and my understanding is that they are going to try to band together to do so. Their effort will be region-wide, bipartisan and significant.

In the new year, I’m told, Governor Eric Holcomb of Indiana and Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio will discuss moving forward with the concept of “how to get together to come up with messaging around the position of the Midwest as a region that knows how to make things and how to engineer and how to design things,” my source tells me. “They’ll talk about that history and marketing-communications messaging and then focus on the next step on talent, our research-based universities and our infrastructure.”

Holcomb and DeWine are, of course, Republicans. But they’re apparently trying to recruit Democrat Governors Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Tony Evers of Wisconsin and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois as well, and perhaps also Democrat Governor Andy Beshear of Kentucky, who is running for re-election next year.

“They know we’ve got the sandbox in this region to be successful with EVs and chips, and also with our general geographic position in the U.S.,” the source says. “They’ll still compete head-to-head, of course, but the first thing they need to do is get more deals in the funnel, more swings of the bat, so the whole region can be successful and lift all the boats in the Midwest. Each state will get its fair share.”

Wakeup in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, Democratic leadership of the House also has looked at a map and found, not surprisingly to us, that there is an absolute vacuum in the middle of the country in their representation from Flyover Country. The map shows that 19 of the top 24 Democratic positions in the House, including committee and subcommittee spots, are held by coastal representatives, with California and the Upper East Coast dominating — and virtually no such responsibilities are vested with solons in Flyover Country.

So Debbie Dingell, a long-time representative from Michigan, has created the Heartland Caucus within her party. “There’s not a single Midwesterner in senior leadership,” she told Finley, while on the Republican side, most of the leadership team is drawn from non-coastal states except for presumptive House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Democrats will be out of power in the House beginning in January, but Dingell’s plan will be significant nonetheless in a chamber where the partisan edge remains razor-thin.

“We will be making sure we have a heartland agenda focused on manufacturing, agriculture, labor halls, trade,” Dingell told Finley. “If you aren’t from [the region], you aren’t as sensitive to these issues.”

Amen. We had our chance in Flyover Country to rectify some of the vast regional economic and political imbalances amid Covid, as tens of thousands of people on the coasts were displaced by pandemic shutdowns and flushed into a diaspora of remote work. To some extent, individual cities and states took advantage. But, again, there was no coordinated marketing effort by any region or sub-region of Flyover Country, which could have accomplished much more.

Let’s see if the House Democrats and the Midwestern governors can get things right this time.


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