Connecting to Regional Economic Development Priorities

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Forward Cities was founded in 2014 based on the belief that the future of our economy and our communities are dependent on our ability to innovate; that place-based efforts will be more successful if they are connected with one another; and that these efforts to create innovation ecosystems will only reach their potential if they are truly inclusive.

In recent years, an increasing numbers of cities have  interested in fostering inclusive innovation ecosystems. As this work has progressed, however, the question of how cities can begin to think outside of their limited boundaries and determine how regional economic development priorities might also play a role in supporting and sustaining their efforts has begun to arise.

Think regionally. Act locally.

Leaders in the government, non-profit, and private sector are quick to extol the value of “collaboration” and yet this simple concept can be messy, inconvenient, and enough to drive otherwise well-intentioned individuals and organizations safely back to their individual silos.

When it comes to creating transformative and sustainable strategies for inclusive economic development, however, the benefits of cities willing to “think regionally” far outweigh the costs.

Research has provided three very compelling reasons for cities to better understand how they can work within their region to accomplish their economic development goals.

  1. Mutually beneficial relationships that last. When cities come together with other communities in their region, the collaborative effort creates lasting relationships built on trust. These relationships create opportunities for sharing information and resources and lay the groundwork for more collaboration opportunities in the future.
  1. Chance to maximize limited resources via collaborative projects. Cities and regions facing limited resources to meet looming increases in demand can succeed by finding new strategies, like partnerships, to increase economies of scale and efficiency.
  1. A united front to address issues and tackle challenges. Regional collaboration provides the vehicle through which individual cities can unite to maximize political influence. Elected officials and bureaucrats are much more attentive to large groups, speaking in a united voice.

Local and Regional Collaboration Best Practices

In an effort to discover the most effective means to determine the most effective ways for cities to tap into (or create) collaborative, regional economic development initiatives, we surveyed over thirty-five economic development plans and spoke with a diverse group of planners and stakeholders across the country. The following best practices were identified.

Cultivate a culture of collaboration, not competition.

As stated above, there are many reason why it makes sense for cities to collaborate regionally in order to better accomplish their goals. Community collaboration is not a natural state, however. In fact, communities within a region have a history of competing. They compete in everything from high school sports, to infrastructure funding, to private investment, to elected office.

Without intentional steps to create a culture of collaboration, those competitive urges have the potential to destroy collaboration. In the San Francisco Bay area, The East Bay Economic Development Alliance  is a group of city leaders, businesses, universities, community colleges, and community groups. In order to create an environment where constituents felt comfortable sharing and collaborating, the East Bay EDA worked with an outside group to create a “code of ethics” prioritizing information sharing and transparency.

Similarly, in Denver, CO, there was a feeling in 2011 that there was a lot of interesting work being done in the city and the region, and yet individual organizations and groups were not aware of each others priorities and initiative. The new Mayor was very vocal that this was something that needed to change, prioritizing strategic community conversations and creating formal and informal systems for opening channels of communications between organizations.

Creating a Culture of Collaboration, Not Competition

Case Study: San Francisco, CA


California’s Bay Area is perhaps more conscious than many of how cycles of boom and bust can adversely impact a region’s journey towards sustainable economic development. In many areas of the state, local policy makers and community leaders have struggled to determine:

  • An effective strategy to attract and retain investments from businesses and employers based outside the community; and
  • What stimulates new job creation, retention and expansion within the community.

In the East Bay area, the most effective strategies for growth have been those fostered in intentionally created environments of regional collaboration.


The East Bay Economic Development Alliance (EDA), which operates out of Alameda and Contra Costa counties was formed in an effort to strengthen regional accountability and sustainable development within the region. As part of the work of the organization, the East Bay EDA worked with an outside consultant to create a “code of ethics” for member organizations to abide by.

Undergirded by the belief that businesses are more willing to invest in regions where communities have a history of working together and an in-depth understanding of their neighboring jurisdictions, the code of ethics is an agreed upon policy that includes shared mission and values of the group, how members are supposed to approach opportunities and challenges, as well as a “no raid” policy between cities. 


Locating the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

While many cities say that they value regional collaboration, East Bay EDA’s approach to codifying what this looks like has provided concrete opportunities for collaborative and transparent regional growth efforts. The following story of illustrates how even competition between cities can be done in a way that encourages transparency and civility:

In 2011, several members of the East Bay EDA competed for a new campus of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which conducts unclassified research across a wide range of scientific disciplines. The new campus development offered the potential to create thousands of jobs and transform its host city into a hub of energy research and innovation.

More than 20 cities, property owners and developers throughout the East Bay submitted bids when the University of California announced it sought to consolidate approximately 1,000 employees working in leased spaces in Walnut Creek, West Berkeley, Emeryville and Oakland into one central location. The university narrowed the field to six cities, which each offered sites along the waterfront and close proximity to the main campus in the Berkeley hills, and ultimately selected Richmond. The site offered open space for development, easy access to the freeway, public transportation and zoning already in place for light industry, and the university already owned the land.


Even though multiple communities in the East Bay competed to persuade the university to locate this valuable economic development asset in their jurisdiction, the history of collaboration and the code of ethics established through the East Bay EDA ensured that the competition was fair and civil, rather than a destructive exercise pitting cities against one another.

Today, East Bay EDA is a respected institution in the East Bay area and their coordinated and collaborative approach has been praised as creating a culture of stewardship, innovation, and action that can lead the region towards prosperity and future economic gains.

Find specific projects to work on together.

Another best practice for cities interested in aligning themselves on a regional level is to find specific projects to work on together. In finding specific projects and initiatives to work on together, cities must get to know each other’s goals, understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and create shared objectives that are beneficial to their individual communities.

From funding proposals to attracting new corporations to the region, working collaboratively is an opportunity to pool resources and community assets and can be particularly beneficial in cases where one jurisdiction does have all of the assets needed to support a particular initiative or project on their own.

A recent example of this is the hundreds of joint applications for Amazon’s second headquarters submitted by MSAs around the country. Spurred on by language taken from Amazon’s own RFP – “We encourage states, provinces and metro areas to coordinate with relevant jurisdictions to submit one (1) RFP for your MSA” – an unprecedented number of cities came together in intentional partnership with their surrounding communities to respond to this RFP.

Find Specific Projects to Work on Together

Case Study: Fort Worth, TX


Fort Worth is the sixteenth largest city in the United States and one of the fastest growing, among the top twenty. Despite this, the city struggles with relatively low external visibility among its peer cities. Decades long inclusion as part of the “Dallas/Fort Worth” combined brand has further obscured the city’s unique assets behind that of its larger and more well known counterpart.

Despite a desire to independently grow its brand recognition, Fort Worth still considers case by base opportunities to work on specific, mutually beneficial economic development initiatives with surrounding communities.


In 2017, Fort Worth invested $350,000 in a strategic plan that was eventually presented to city leaders. According to that plan, one of the big challenges Fort Worth faces is that its residential development is outpacing its business development.

Put simply, the city struggles to attract the major corporations and high-wage jobs that are instead choosing to go to Dallas, another large city in the region.

With that in mind, the city created a plan that included several bold benchmarks – one of which involved growing the number of Fortune 1000 companies located in Fort Worth. Currently, there are two Fortune 1000 headquarters that call Fort Worth home — American Airlines and Pier 1 Imports. By 2022, they want to increase that number to seven.

Not surprisingly, when the RFP to identify the site of Amazon’s second US Headquarters was announced, the city did not hesitate to pursue the opportunity.


Despite recent efforts to establish a strong local Fort Worth brand separate from the “Dallas/Fort Worth” conglomerate, the city recognized the importance of identifying on a case-by-case basis, opportunities for strategic collaboration. In this case, the opportunity to collaborate on a discrete project with mutually beneficial goals proved to be one worth exploring and ultimately, the city decided to move forward with a joint application.

The cities in DFW and the State of Texas were diligent, thoughtful and comprehensive in responding to the specific questions outlined in the Amazon RFP. In collaboration with their regional mayors and economic development partners, the Dallas Regional Chamber and the Fort Worth Chamber worked closely throughout the application process.

Key to their application as well as future collaborative efforts was cultivating their capacity to collect, organize, and deliver the regional-level data and information that was requested by Amazon.


The Dallas/Ft. Worth proposal was well received. The region was chosen as one of twenty finalist for the second Amazon headquarters. Brandom Gengelbach, Executive Vice President of Economic Development for the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, calls the project a “historic feat” and has stated plans to use the regional information collected as a foundational asset towards future collaborative projects.

Tap into state funding and resources

Fostering regional collaboration to achieve economic development goals can be challenging, especially when lacking a compelling reason to initiate a partnership. However, the prospect of federal and state grant funding can catalyze partnerships and begin developing trust.

In the case of Boston, MA, the state of Massachusetts initiated a partnership by asking multiple organizations to draft a proposal for funding for a large casino project. With the promise of state funding driving their collaborative efforts, multiple regional stakeholders successfully came together around a shared grant application. Although the state was the catalyst for this particular collaboration, other cities can take advantage of this strategy to streamline and expedite their own funding application processes.

Tap Into State Funding and Resources

Case Study: Boston, MA


In late 2014, Wynn Resort announced that they would be moving forward with the construction of a large gaming facility in Everett, MA.  The announcement created both excitement and concern in nearby neighborhoods and communities. With the promise of potential funding, a coalition of planning organizations, municipalities, and entrepreneurial and logistic support organizations were called together by the state to create an innovative solution for one of the chief concerns: transportation, traffic, and congestion.


Approved by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in September of 2014, the Wynn Resort Boston Harbor is a 2.5 billion dollar project slated to open in 2019.

Realizing that the millions of square feet of new commercial space and housing units being created would have a collective impact spanning multiple municipalities and could not be effectively or efficiently addressed through individualized project strategies— the decision was made to create a comprehensive, regional approach that treated each new development, including the Wynn resort, as one component of the area’s transformation.

The regional approach was encouraged and endorsed by the state’s environmental review process for the Wynn Boston Harbor project.  On August 28, 2015, the Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) issued a Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) certificate regarding the Wynn Boston Harbor project. The certificate outlined a series of transportation commitments expected of Wynn Boston Harbor, while also calling for a regional working group to plan for the cumulative impacts of development in the surrounding area. The Mystic Regional Working Group (LMRWG, or Working Group) was convened in November of 2015.


Within this approach was an opportunity for neighboring cities to view the work together to solve a logistical problem, and to do so with an eye to inclusiveness and innovation.

While much of the focus of this working group was around the area’s transportation concerns, the work group also saw this project as an opportunity to consider the regional needs of business groups; low-income, minority, and immigrant communities; political leaders; major medical, nonprofit, and community institutions as related to the Wynn Boston Harbor project; and to create an internal imperative to pursue and acquire more contracts by women and minority entrepreneurs.


Over the past two years, the Working Group has inventoried planned and potential development in the area, identified a wide variety of policies and improvements that could help to improve transportation conditions, tested those options using technical forecasting models, and selected a set of recommendations for implementing the most promising ideas.

A recent report on the group’s progress this far stresses: “There is not a silver bullet to solving the area’s transportation issues, nor will one party be responsible; instead, an effort among multiple stakeholders is required to implement a variety of multimodal infrastructure and policy initiatives. Consequently, achieving the vision for sustainable growth and transportation outlined here will require continued active collaboration and engagement of the surrounding communities and policy makers.”

In this case, the state’s role in pulling this group together was a critical component of the efficacy and urgency of the working group and continues to play a role in the suite of funding options being presented for consideration in the coming months.

Create strong public/private partnerships.

A final lesson from our research stresses the critical importance of cross-sector ownership of a common approach to strengthening the region’s economic competitiveness. Beyond aligning government and philanthropic efforts, the strategy must be fully supported by the private sector.

An array of public-private partnerships helped the city of Columbus, Ohio leverage a $40 million DoT grant and $10 million from Vulcan Inc. into $500 million of funding. Columbus 2020, a regional economic development organization focusing on driving economic growth across 11 Central Ohio counties was instrumental in helping Columbus achieve this feat.

Create Strong Public/Private Partnerships

Case Study: Columbus, OH


In 2010, local leaders in Columbus, OH came together to create a regional economic development organization to support the city and surrounding counties. Their focus on cultivating strong engagement within the private sector helped them to leverage a $50 million grant into $500 million worth of investment from Columbus and surrounding communities.


Created in 2010 as a response to the changing economic landscape and the 2008 recession, Columbus 2020 is the economic development organization for the Columbus Region, with a mission to generate opportunity and build capacity for economic growth across 11 Central Ohio counties

Composed of a diverse group of business and civic leaders, the organization created a regional growth strategy as well as a public-private partnership tasked with creating a more diverse and dynamic base in central Ohio. The region’s ambitious goals included adding 150,000 net new jobs, securing $8 billion of new capital investment and increasing per-capita income by 30 percent over the next decade.


In June 2016, the city of Columbus landed a much-coveted $40 million grant from the US Department of Transportation and $10 million from Vulcan Inc. as part of the federal Smart City Challenge. The city won the funding in large part because of it’s close partnership with the Columbus business community.

In less than a year, Columbus was able to turn that original $50 million into half a billion dollars, thanks to an array of investments from the private sector.

Thanks to the establishment of the Columbus 2020 regional initiative years prior, Columbus officials were able to tap into their expertise putting together public-private partnerships. With its regional economic development organization leading the way, officials pulled together $90 million in pledges from local businesses in Columbus and surrounding communities in just two months, from when the federal grant was announced in December 2015 until applications were due in February 2016.


In addition to the above accomplishment, Columbus’ regional economic development organization and its strong engagement from the private sector, has achieved the following:

  • 147,595 net new jobs added as of October 2017, $8.7 billion of capital investment generated as of November 2017 and a per capita income increase of 24.4 percent as of 2016.
  • Columbus was selected as one of six cities – alongside Minneapolis-Saint Paul; Portland, Ore.; San Antonio; San Diego and Seattle – to participate in a foreign investment program led by the Brookings Institute and JPMorgan Chase & Co.
  • In 2017, Columbus 2020 received two marketing awards from the International Economic Development Council (IEDC), one gold and one silver. In addition, results from two industry studies ranked Columbus 2020 as the No. 1 “best in class” regional economic development agency and recognized the organization as one of the “most valuable economic development brands.”


It’s clear that in cities today that are interested in developing a sustainable response to economic challenges and opportunities must be do in a way that utilizes all of their limited resources. In many cases, this means “thinking regionally, acting locally.” The role of collaboration will be particularly important in this new economic environment, which requires unconventional strategies for generating growth and opportunity.

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