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Balancing regionalism’s good and bad

Remember the “$20,000 Pyramid” television game show?
Two contestants would sit facing each other while one looked up at the pyramid of categories and gave clues in an attempt to get the other to say what the clues had in common. The correct answer would always begin with the phrase, “Things that.”

Let’s play a version of that game. I’ll give the clues and you guess what they have in common. Ready?

Appalachia

Napa Valley

Pennsylvania Dutch Country

Research Triangle

Texas Hill Country

Need a few more? How about…

The Coast

The Delta

The Golden Triangle

Piney Woods

Buzzer! Time’s up. If you guessed “Things that are regions,” you win.

Regionalism is all the rage again. In this column we’ll discuss the reasons why that is so, as well as comment on why attempts at regionalism do not always work.

A region is generally considered to be a large, continuous area of land or place of interest that has reasonably identifiable boundaries. Things that are part of a region have something in common. The regions mentioned above are geographical regions, and may include cities, counties or even states.

The Mississippi Delta is a good example of a region defined by geography and culture.

Because of Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi is again being looked at as a region instead of three separate counties and 11 separate municipalities. The right questions are being asked. Common sense dictates that there might be opportunities for shared regional services such as water/sewer districts, law enforcement and transportation plans. In terms of tourism marketing, the Gulf Coast had already positioned itself as a region because tourists view it that way. Also, because of Katrina and hurricane activity in general we are hearing more about natural disaster regions, flood-prone regions and coastal regions. But I digress.

Regionalism is alive and well in the economic development world, and has been so for a number of years now. Charlotte, N.C., had success by using the regional economic development approach, so other regions got on the bandwagon. It is difficult to now find any area of the United States that is not part of some economic development region. Several states even provide incentives for local areas to form economic development regional organizations. That is because site selectors and companies that are in the market for new locations think regionally. They are interested in an area, not necessarily a certain community. Economic development organizations across the country have responded accordingly.

In Mississippi there are several regional economic development initiatives.

Some examples are the Southwest Mississippi Partnership (www.southwestmississippi.org), the Mississippi Delta Developers Association (www.mdda.us), The Mid-Mississippi Development District (www.mmdd.org) and the Metro Jackson Economic Development Alliance (www.metrojacksoneda.com).

In Southeast Mississippi, the I-59 corridor (www.i-59ms.com) is promoted as, “…a network of city and county governments, educational and training institutions, developed industrial parks and skilled, available labor linked by a highly-developed transportation system including rail, airports and shipping ports.” Members of these organizations have pooled resources to market the region.

The experts are looking at regionalism as a strategy for rural communities. In an article in the Summer 2004 issue of Economic Development America, published by the US Economic Development Administration, Mark Drabenstott, vice president and director, Center for the Study of Rural America, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, stated that rural economic development strategies will include “thinking and acting regionally.” Michael Porter, renowned Harvard University professor and consultant to a telecommunications initiative in Mississippi a few years ago, is currently involved in a study of rural regions.

Regionalism is not limited to job recruiting organizations. There are planning and development districts, utility districts, tourism regions, fire control districts and many more. People elected to public office for the first time discover an array of organizations that their government is a part of.

Attempts at forming regions do not always work. One of the major threats to organizing a region is loss of identity of the subregions. If a subregion feels that it will be less well-off, then it will attempt to form its own organization. I know of one county that had a countywide chamber of commerce. Before long, each city in the county felt like it was not being marketed aggressively enough. Today, that county has a total of five chambers within its borders.

Another reason that regional efforts falter is the lack of adequate financial resources. The subregion typically has limited financial resources and wants as much as possible for its marketing dollars. It feels that because it has only so much to spend, it might as well spend it on the local community.

In summary, regionalism of just about every type is growing while local communities strive to maintain their identities.

Phil Hardwick’s column on Mississippi Business appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is phil@philhardwick.com.

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