Saturday, May 15, 2010

Innovations In Political Geography: Cleveburgh

Imagine if the discipline of geography could be more like economics. Self-anointed economic geographers such as Ed Glaeser and even Paul Krugman demonstrate the possibilities. But don't expect a traditionally trained geographer to collect a Nobel Prize any time in the near future. Save GIS, could you name even one geographic innovation accomplished in the last 50-years?

Throughout history, there have been a number of important geographic discoveries. One of the greatest was the means to measure longitude, which gave the British a huge edge in controlling the seas. That empire was built with geographic technologies. However, some (perhaps most) innovations are much more subtle.

My doctoral dissertation subject for geography was Guantanamo. I wanted to understand how such a spatial loophole in international law came to be. The historical precedent goes back at least to the earliest days of the United States. The moment of geographic innovation happened during the beginning of the first Reagan Administration. Mining government archives to unearth the thinking behind such a brilliant idea was a thrilling quest. Explaining the importance of my research to anyone else seemed like an exercise in futility. Most of my friends and family thought I studied rocks. At least geology's utility is well appreciated.

Thanks to the Rust Belt, all that research hasn't gone to waste. Spatial legal loopholes are now urban frontiers. The parochial jigsaw puzzle now consumes all my [spare] time. Keep all that in mind while I get effusive about this:

A $550,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation will help the partners organizing a two-state work-force development collaborative to share some of their best practices.

Officials from job placement and training programs in the five counties that comprise the Oh-Penn Interstate Region -- Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull counties in Ohio and Lawrence and Mercer counties in Pennsylvania -- gathered Wednesday at the Youngstown Business Incubator's Semple Building to announce the award from the foundation.

Last year the U.S. Department of Labor awarded the five counties a $250,000 regional innovation grant to develop a workforce development system, recognizing their formation of the nation's first interstate region, said William Turner, administrator of the One-Stop Workforce Center of Trumbull County.

The partners in the five-county collaborative found out how unique their partnership is when the Walmart Foundation invited the Oh-Penn to apply for an America Works Initiative grant, said Sam Giannetti, executive director of West Central Job Partnership, which serves Lawrence and Mercer counties and acts as the fiscal agent for Oh-Penn. The award was one of seven grants totaling $3.4 million awarded by the foundation.

That's not the kind of news that's going to garner much attention. Interstate workforce development is a novelty. Believe it or not, Youngstown is THE hotbed for geographic innovation. I suspect that even local civic boosters don't think of themselves in that way. There isn't much gain in branding your region as such.

In economic development circles, successfully rethinking your geography is highly valued. It must appear as a magic trick when it works. No one is sure how to get from here to there. But we do know that our current political geography is broken. Working examples of regional thinking are a revelation. How did Oh-Penn pull it off?

The SITE Selection article focuses primarily on V&M Star's $650 million expansion but also highlights Patriot Special metals' $70 million expansion in North Jackson.

The piece quotes Roger Lindgren, recently retired V&M Star CEO.

“I am an advocate of regionalism, and I think the cooperation between Youngstown and Girard took very active involvement of both city councils and both mayors," Lindgren told the magazine. "To me, that is a great tribute to both mayors and their city councils that they would forget their parochial interests, shall we say, and cooperate to make something like this happen. It proves it can be done, and it proves it can be done in the Mahoning Valley.”

The article appears at the same time that the success of Youngstown is being touted in the current issue of Inc. Magazine, chamber officials note.

“Five years ago, it would have been difficult to think that the showcase investment in the state of Ohio is right here in the Mahoning Valley," said Walt Good, the chamber's vice president of economic development, business retention and expansion. "It shows the progress we have made and will continue to make as the country comes out of a recession and business investment increases.”
I saw firsthand how difficult the collaboration between Youngstown and Girard was concerning V&M Star's investment. No great idea can find expression without the benefit of geographic innovation. Youngstown is a shining example of that kind of thinking. The communities of the Steel Valley will find a way to get it done.

Is there something about this part of the country that creates geographers? Ask Glaeser:

Like our president, I was cheering for the Steelers. My great-grandfather helped manage a Pittsburgh steel plant, and I’m always rooting for the Rust Belt. However, I would not expect the great trends of urban change to reverse any time soon. Phoenix may have lost on Sunday, but it will continue to grow spectacularly. Pittsburgh’s population will continue to decline. For that reason, I’m happy that in Tampa Bay, in the heart of the Sun Belt, the Rust Belt had its revenge.

To understand the Rust Belt, you have to understand geography. Sun Belt folks just don't get it.

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