Competitors or Collaborators: What Does it Take to Achieve Regional Economic Success

April 30, 2012
by Christiana McFarland 

Much has been written from the perspective that regional economic success relies on strong collaboration among key regional stakeholders, including political leaders, the business community, higher education and many others. This certainly is true, but what if we dig a bit deeper into the dynamics of these regions? In practice, it is often the case that in regions well known for cooperation, competitiveness is actually a dominant feature of the economic development landscape, as noted in a recent Public Administration Review article by Lee, Feiock and Lee (2012). In fact, it is this competitiveness that sometimes drives regional behaviors, particularly when local goals can only be met with a collaborative approach. 

One example from NLC's work in this arena comes from Seattle, which has one of the nation's leading regional efforts to promote international trade. The Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle (TDA) promotes the trade interests of the Seattle region in both domestic and foreign markets. TDA is a regional public-private partnership made up of the Ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Everett; the Metropolitan King County Government; Snohomish and Pierce county governments; the cities of Seattle, Everett, Bellevue and Tacoma; and the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, other business leadership and union leadership. 

Despite strong regional awareness and interests among all the key stakeholders in TDA, there is an innate localism driving participation. Communities participate in TDA not only because they recognize that local partnerships are necessary to retain the region's future competiveness, but because many do not have the capacity to pursue activities, such as maintaining international trade relationships, needed to enhance their community's local economy. 

"Although local elected officials and staff are often best suited to initiate these relationships, sustaining them requires more expertise and time than our local government alone can offer," commented a councilmember from Bellevue. 

Additionally, despite Seattle's outward brand as a strong, unified region, communities within the region self-identify in ways that are economically self-promoting. 

For example, there are subregional identities, including the "east central technology corridor," which drive local economic development strategies and intraregional competition for domestic and foreign investment. 

NLC has engaged many local leaders over the years who have recognized regionalism as a best practice. Yet, regional efforts, while becoming more prevalent, are still not the norm, particularly in the competitive field of economic development. 

So what are we missing? In practice, and within the scope of local political realities, regional cooperation for economic development is not an end in itself or strictly a means to achieve a greater good. 

Our colleague, Bill Barnes, often tells audiences that "Regionalism isn't the answer; it's the question." The question is whether there is a regional approach or solution that fits a particular challenge. Pursuing regionalism for regionalism's sake may resonate, but will not necessarily convince local stakeholders to pursue joint action at home. 

Regional economic development, at least from the perspective of local leaders, is most likely used when it is perceived as a way to strengthen local economic competitiveness. It prevails in communities that are active and strategic in economic development, have engagement of the business community (i.e. those who can politically motivate but are not tied to political geography) and whose leaders are aware of the value of regional assets and trust others in the region. Achieving this careful balance is where the difficulty lies for local leaders. Continuing to understand and better articulate this complex dynamic will help promote greater collaboration. 

Details: A version of this article, titled "Commentary on Competitors and Cooperators: A Micro-Level Analysis of Regional Economic Development Collaboration Networks" by Christiana McFarland, J. Katie McConnell and Christopher Hoene, was published in the Public Administration Review Volume 72, Issue 2, American Society for Public Administration (2012). 

Christiana McFarland is program director for finance and economic development at NLC and can be reached at mcfarland@nlc.org.