JIM CAMPBELL - CHAIR, THE ITASCA PROJECT
“I heard so much about[your] chambers of commerce, about the public spirit of [your] business community, about your remarkable Five Percent Club – that I feel a bit like Dorothy in the Land of Oz. I had to come to the Emerald City myself to see if it really exists.” John D. Rockefeller III, on a visit to the Twin Cities in June, 1977.
The Twin Cities’ has a longstanding reputation as a great place to live; it also has benefited from a history of impressive civic leadership, in particular by the somewhat unique involvement of the business sector. Now, a generation after meetings like the one Rockefeller addressed here, there is pent-up energy to ensure that we build on that impressive history. And it couldn’t happen at a better time: our communities are faced with rising challenges, strained financial resources and intense global competition for both jobs and the talented people who take them.
A bright, committed band of professionals in our midst began meeting some months ago (I wasn’t there, so I can compliment them), pushing to find an approach to civic engagement that meets the test of the times in which we live. Volunteer hours are at a premium; money is almost as hard to come by. Business leaders, in particular, are still interested in the quality of life in Minnesota – but many of them also have responsibility for operations in many other cities around the world, so their commitment gets spread thin. Decision-making in our community faces unique challenges, too: we don’t have easy, natural arena for public leadership to emerge. At last count, there are more than 240 elected bodies within our 7-county metropolitan area, each with its own charter, accountabilities and political realities. Creating a clear sense of community consensus won’t happen easily.
Out of these months of consideration comes the Itasca Project, an initiative to keep area civic leaders working together on a select set of issues. Launched with the help of the McKnight Foundation and fueled with donated management assistance from the McKinsey consulting firm, this gathering-that-doesn’t-want-to-form-a-new-group is working to bring leadership and momentum to a set of regional challenges. Areas of focus include transportation infrastructure; early childhood development; ensuring that the growth of existing large employers is supported by the region; better understanding the expanding racial inequities in our midst; making full use of the existence of our land-grant, research University as a generator of future economic strength.
The Itasca participants don’t expect to find quick fixes or easy answers; we do hope to find willingness of existing organizations to work together on a common agenda. Within our focus areas, we will do whatever it takes to make the difference – to ensure that meaningful progress is made through effective, collaborative action. If there is an initiative that makes sense but needs access to key leaders, we’d like to provide that. If there is an issue important to all of us but mired in partisanship or turf battles, we hope to provide the opportunity to reset the necessary debate. If there is agreement on a problem but precious little information about real solutions, we’ll commit to finding the resources to study the issue and develop alternatives. It may be no small thing that one of the first efforts of the Itasca Project participants was to do a “gap analysis” on the issues that we identified as priorities. We wanted to know who is already working on these issues, and what can we do to help. Conversely, we are learning which issues aren’t getting meaningful attention, and asking how our energy and efforts can contribute to community progress. Building consensus for public action in a complex metropolitan area will continue to be a significant challenge – but unquestionably worth the effort. So let’s get started.