The Itasca Project name is an allusion to what many perceive as the golden age of civic engagement on the part of Twin Cities business leaders. For some years beginning in the 1960s, a group of business leaders assembled at Itasca State Park to discuss issues of regional importance. This annual gathering, called the Itasca Seminar, is representative of a time when, according to legend, CEOs with familiar names like Dayton and Pillsbury met at the Minneapolis Club and provided ideas and leadership that transformed the future of the region.

As the nature of business has changed through the years, the informal gatherings and networks that were the backbone of this civic leadership have become anachronistic. The demands on todays CEOs, often operating global businesses, are such that a new mechanism is required to allow them to meaningfully engage on civic issues. The Itasca Project was created to be that mechanism.

Key Events

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The first organizational meeting of the Itasca Project was held September 12, 2003. The Governor, the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and about 30 other business and civic leaders gathered at the McKnight Foundation offices and agreed on the need for a new regional economic development effort. The ten minutes on the agenda for introductions stretched to nearly half an hour as each participant expressed their own personal commitment to the Twin Cities and their hope that the Itasca Project could be the vehicle for them to make a difference.

The group reviewed an assessment of the regions current economic development strengths and weaknesses and agreed that some critical issues were not being adequately addressed by current efforts. The group expressed concern about the competitive threat of other regions, the fragmentation and overlap of our existing public and private economic development activities, and the lack of a regional strategic vision. Although the next meeting had been scheduled for January 2004, the participants wanted to press more aggressively and met two more times in the fall of 2003 to give life to the Itasca Project.
The group, which grew with every meeting, agreed on the following four objectives for the Itasca Project:

  • Build understanding and alignment within the business community on the most critical regional issues

  • Help catalyze and coordinate business leadership to address these issues, building upon pre-existing activity and infrastructure

  • Create strong and active partnerships between the business community, the University, government, and other institutions working to improve the region

  • Sustain business leader enthusiasm and engagement over time through strong governance and decision-making processes, well-coordinated action, and quantifiable results

In the course of discussions, the group agreed on two fundamentals that now form the core of Itascas identity and activity:

  • Itasca should not become yet another organization. Though participants felt there was a major gap in current economic development activity, no one wanted to fill the gap with another organization. For this reason, Itasca is a virtual organization, volunteer-led, with no staff or office.
  • Itasca should have a broad, civic agenda. Although led by business, Itasca is intended to be a civic effort, working beyond the bounds of business self-interest.
The official kick-off meeting for the Itasca Project was held in January 2004. Since that time, a group of our regions most important leaders have committed to the value of giving their personal time and talents to issues that affect our regions economic competitiveness and quality of life.