9 Themes Identified in Transformed Regional Cities

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After hundreds of hours speaking with the leaders of America’s transformed cities, analyzing data until our eyes crossed and summarizing all of our findings in an action oriented report, I am ready to provide you with the cliff notes. To summarize,  we found that there are nine key themes to consider if you are looking to transform your community.

But first…

The best part about being a consultant in my field is that you get to meet the most fascinating people and every once in a while, those people allow you to become part of their vision. I had the opportunity this summer to support the study component of the Indiana Regional Cities initiative. This effort seeks to transform Indiana’s regional cities become destinations for people and investment. Indiana’s recent history is not unlike most Midwest and rustbelt cities in that population is stagnant at best and declining in many locations. But, what sets Indiana apart right now is that the future looks much brighter than the past if they embrace the concept that their regional cities can compete and can be destinations.

Under Governor Mike Pence’s leadership, Eric Doden, the President of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, is championing the effort to make Indiana’s regional cities competitors on a global stage.  Offering an improved ‘product’ to people and businesses as they look to expand and locate, the vision for this growth sets Indiana apart and is one that, if advanced, will be the role model for communities throughout the region and beyond.

“The communities we studied this summer are excited for their futures, with a real buzz palpable around every corner. They are busy working together to embrace big ideas,” said Doden. “Our next step is to help spark that same enthusiasm into each region of our state, working with community leaders and the guidance of this study to cultivate the next big economic powerhouse community right here at home.”

The following nine themes form the base for what these regional cities have done to support their transformation.

Nine Themes Identified in Transformed Regional Cities

1. Establish a Bold Vision, Support Tenacious Leadership and Engage Broad Civic Infrastructure

The truth is that you need a passionate visionary – someone who sees a future that is so much better than what your community has going on now. That visionary hopefully inspires a bunch of people that say f’ it to commit to the cause and then you need to get an organized group to help you figure out how to make the vision a reality.

2. Your City is Part of a Region

Sure, your suburb is cool and a few people moved in but guess what? They moved there because they think major cities—like Austin, Denver, Nashville and the other places we looked— are awesome. Guess what? Awesome is not where everyone lives or works, they do those things in the ring, but when they want to have awesome it’s only a quick drive or a light rail trip away.

3. Engage and Strengthen Industry in a Whole New Way

You have an existing base of companies and need to make sure they have the ability to grow. Identifying their barriers and opportunities and bringing partners to the table is a critical role.

4. Regional Investment Supports Quality of Place

People need a place to live, work and play. You can’t just say it, you need to truly have a plan that assesses the quality of place in the region and makes strategic investments to keep improving that quality of place.

5. Plans Must be Visionary, Market-based, and Action-oriented to Guide Regional Transformation

Taking the vision and using market-based information to define it is critical to allowing for developing and communicating a strategy. Data allows civic leaders to get beyond perceptions and make informed decisions about priorities. Once the priority actions are identified they must be defined to a level that encourages broad support and allows for ongoing tracking towards a goal.

6. Private Sector Investment is Attracted to a Healthy Business Climate and Talent Base

Having a competitive tax and regulatory climate is the baseline. What high growth communities are now focused on, is the quality of the public education system. A high functioning system serves the regional workforce (educating their kids) and employers (providing skills). A non-functioning system will cost businesses money in both talent and taxes—and they know it.

7. Financing Regional Transformation Requires a Multi-Faceted Approach

The plans developed and projects identified require a diversity of financing strategies. True public and private partnerships in the cities profiled are demonstrating how to get deals done with creativity.

8. Long-Term Partnership Requires Non-Partisan Thinking

The civic leaders in the communities profiled were committed to the vision and the plan. Refreshingly, they did not allow partisanship to get in the way and drive rethinking every election cycle. They focused on the goals rather than ideology.

9. Higher Education Partners Are Critical for Transformation

We did not look in advance for communities that had a higher education institution but as the interviews began and the data was analyzed it became clear that higher education is a linchpin for transformation. And not just as a talent producer but as a partner, investor and quality of place developer.

The Transformed Regional Cities

The themes captured above are the results of hundreds of hours of interviews, data analysis and writing. A quality of place framework of 76 data indicators were utilized in our analysis. The results showed us that the following cities rose to the top:

Large Regional Cities

  • Austin, Texas
  • Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Denver, Colorado
  • Nashville, Tennessee

Medium Regional Cities

  • Durham, North Carolina
  • Fayetteville, Arkansas
  • Provo, Utah
  • Boise, Idaho
  • Waterloo – Cedar Falls, Iowa

Small Regional Cities

  • Manhattan, Kansas
  • Brookings, South Dakota

For more information on the Indiana Regional Cities Initiative and to see the case studies of eleven transformed regional cities please visit our project portfolio. In future newsletters we will provide additional thoughts on the themes and offer tools for our readers. For now we want to start the conversation.