I had the opportunity to speak to The Civic Council of Greater Kansas City about what is happening (or not happening) in Washington, the implications of the federal governments actions (or inactions) for individual cities and metropolitan areas, and how creative regions like the Kansas City metro are the economic engines of our future.
By DON BORUT
Special to The Star
At a time when a bit of humility and empathy would be helpful, too many in Washington are pontificating and defending their sense of certainty and importance. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has observed that Washington is the only city where you can see prominent people walking down lovers lane holding their own hand.
With this political gridlock and the continuing national economic challenges, it is unrealistic to expect constructive financial assistance to local governments from the federal government in the foreseeable future. In trying to address the genuine concerns and needs of constituents, we have seen Congress increase federal requirements on cities through unfunded mandates. These mandates are often called shift and shaft federalism. In other words, communities are on their own. While it is easy to simply project this reality on all levels of government, I would suggest that local government, regions, and the private and non-profit sectors are proving to be the nations engines of creative innovation and economic growth.
Cities are no longer individual islands that can prosper regardless of what is occurring elsewhere in their region. Cultural and political assumptions are being challenged as citizens and public and private sector leaders are acknowledging the brutal realities their communities face and are identifying ways to find common ground.
The Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, has demonstrated that those regions that have identified their unique cluster of assets and developed a long-term strategy to capitalize on them are truly building their economies.
Dynamic regions tend to have private sector leadership, a sustained long-term strategy or plan, alignment, a level of trust, cross-jurisdiction collaboration, continuing affirmation and celebration, and a tolerance for ambiguity. They are using data to confront the brutal realities of place; they are attracting young people; and, they are collaborating with often disparate, competitive and parochial institutions, including universities, geographic entities, neighborhoods and labor groups.
And, few regions have been more effective than Kansas City. To my surprise, this reality seems to be under appreciated by many who live here.
Having a collective vision and some basic shared priorities is critical. The Kansas City region has clearly invested in and seen growth from its vision for life sciences, animal health and medicine as critical economic engines for the region. Private-sector leadership, collaboration, and a shared appreciation for coordinated investment around this vision have been vital, along with political leaders who surely have differences but are aligned on the collective objectives.
Given that the federal government and, for that matter, state governments are confronting their own financial challenges, local governments are compelled to be models of financial discipline, able and willing to make difficult but strategic choices to support and build on their assets and economic strengths. This involves taking risks, being creative, knowing that some things wont work and appreciating that critics abound who will take pleasure in finding fault.
In the current, hyperpartisan national environment where ideology has become dominant in state and local political discourse, the private sector must be a critical player in helping bring together multiple groups and communities around a shared agenda.
I would suggest that yours is a leading dynamic region that is positioning itself for the future with its emphasis on the life sciences and entrepreneurship.
What I experienced in visiting Kansas City is great pride in what has been accomplished but a tendency to think it does not measure up against what is happening elsewhere.
To sustain success, it is important to build even greater support and understanding through stories, celebrations and repetition. Midwestern humility is part of the charm of Kansas City, but it should be balanced with confidence that Kansas City already has much to brag about.
Don Borut of Washington, D.C., is the retired executive director of the National League of Cities.