Region Agenda, Part 1: Little Fiefdoms Or Powerhouse Region?
December 27, 2009
Is 2010 the year that regionalism ceases to be a four-letter word in Greater Hartford and instead becomes a way of doing business, a way of presenting ourselves to the world? Is this the year Greater Hartford starts to become a metropolitan region instead of a quilt of municipal fiefdoms?
It may be a matter of necessity. The state is projected to face a nearly $6 billion budget deficit by 2013, with no rainy day fund and little borrowing capacity left to offset it. Cuts in municipal aid will be on the table. Legislative leaders have just created a blue-ribbon commission headed by Rep. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden to work with local leaders to find regional efficiencies across the state that will offset the expected budget cuts.
It won't be easy. For centuries, residents of central Connecticut have carried forward the intense and competitive localism of their Puritan forebears. The state once had county government, but it eroded over the years and was finally put out of its misery 50 years ago. The notion of regional activity of any kind has historically evoked strong suspicion.
In early October, a delegation of business, civic, academic and nonprofit leaders from Greater Hartford traveled to Minnesota for a "regional leadership exchange." They met with leaders in Minneapolis-St. Paul to talk about five areas:
1. REGIONAL DELIVERY of municipal services and sharing tax revenues.
2. FOCUSING on the health care sector for economic development.
3. A ROBUST TRANSPORTATION infrastructure and how to pay for it.
4. ENGAGING HIGHER EDUCATION in a variety of development areas.
5. THE ROLE of an entertainment and sports arena.
In the materials for the Minnesota trip, there's a wry definition of regional collaboration in Greater Hartford: "An unnatural act between unconsenting adults who have no idea why they are together and who always have something better to do."
The point of the trip was to change the definition, to make regional collaboration "a cornerstone of our region's economic development strategy."As averse as the "Land of Steady Habits" is to change, there is growing sentiment to explore the idea of more regional activity. Smart-growth advocates see benefit in regional land-use and transportation policies. And many town leaders, faced with heavy budget pressures in a down economy, are aggressively looking for ways to share services and expenses.
Connecticut has always been a high-cost state, but it was able to compete with other states with well-educated workers and a good quality of life. But there is a point at which cost trumps everything else. When Pratt & Whitney, the state's largest private employer, says it is moving 1,000 jobs to Georgia because costs are 40 percent lower, leaders have to pay attention. Regional cooperation can help the state get leaner and more efficient.
Reduced costs may not be the only benefit to regional collaboration.
The Brookings Institution has begun a multiyear project called "Blueprint for American Prosperity — Unleashing the Potential of a Metropolitan Nation." The thrust is to get the federal government to realize that metropolitan regions — not the states — are the drivers of the nation's economy, and to respond accordingly. The country's largest 100 metro areas generate 75 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, according to a Brookings policy paper.
Metros succeed because they have "drivers of prosperity": a preponderance of research universities, ports and airports, and adults with graduate degrees. They have relatively compact settlement patterns, which translates to more transit options, less sprawl and more bang from infrastructure investments.
When metros are really cooking, their concentration and aggregation of economic activity generates new patents, new businesses and new jobs.
Greater Hartford has a number of effective regional organizations — a council of governments, a metro business group, a water and sewer authority — but no regional governance or even a strong forum for regional decision-making. As a result, towns pursue their own interests and little is decided on a regional basis.
Meanwhile, more cohesive regions around the country are funding and building transit systems and transit-oriented development, renewing downtowns, adding affordable housing and attracting new businesses.
Over the next five days, this page will offer a blueprint of how Greater Hartford could coalesce into an active metropolitan region. We invite your comments, both in print and online, at www.courant.com/letters or Letters to the Editor, 241 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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