COLUMBUS, OHIO — Who cares about Arlington, Va.?
Or rather, the question for Intelligent Community Forum Co-founder Robert Bell was something like: How can we make people care enough about Arlington to make them want to locate a business there, when Washington, D.C., is just one river away?
It’s a common problem for a city official trying his or her hand at economic development for a community that exists in the shadow of a much larger city. These places are often bedroom communities — a place to live, not a place to work. So why would a business choose to locate there when there's an urban core so close by?
Bell had a thought for Arlington, and all the cities like it: Perhaps the proximity to a big city could be a strength instead of a weakness.
“There’s a much bigger picture when you sell, and you can work with your competitors, if you will,” Bell said on June 15 at the 2016 Intelligent Community Forum Summit in Columbus, Ohio.
It turns out there are many positives to be gained when cities within a metropolitan area work together on projects involving technology and economic development. Bell discussed those benefits during the summit with several representatives from cities that have taken a regional approach to growth:
1. Cheaper systems
When two companies merge, they often do so because working together means they can eliminate redundancies and reduce costs while maintaining or improving quality.
The same thing can happen with cities, especially when it comes to technology. Just ask Tom Weisner, mayor of Aurora, Ill. When his city wanted to buy new technology for its police department, it went to neighboring Naperville and asked if it was interested in the same upgrades.
“We joined together with Naperville so that our combined buying power was almost double,” Weisner said. “We were able to save about $5 million apiece. … Plus, bringing their skills to the table and our skills to the table, we were able to make a better buy.”
They aren’t the only ones. The cities of Gahanna, Whitehall and Bexley outside Columbus worked together to lay down fiber to deliver high-speed Internet for all three. Tom Kneeland, mayor of Gahanna and its former CIO, said that it saved time — the cities applied jointly for state funding to complete the project — and gave the cities the ability to work together and find other ways to save money.
That’s the other thing about cooperating with neighbors. The city officials who have done it say it adds more perspective to the process, and more brains can often come up with better solutions. Dana McDaniel, city manager of Dublin, Ohio, said that working with a nongovernment partner — the Columbus-based Battelle Memorial Institute — helped his city buy its own fiber network and install it.
“It’s almost like free consulting,” he said.
2. Ability to plan ahead and plan smarter
Cooperation between neighboring governments can also help them plan further out into the future. That’s what the Canadian city of Hamilton, Ontario, found when it set out to create a transportation plan looking out not just two years or five, but 50.
Hamilton, a transportation hub between Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., went to the provincial government to begin the process. But the city didn’t go alone — it took Toronto too.
“We can talk about technology and how it’s advancing right now, driverless cars and the trucking industry and the rail industry … it gives us a chance to be true partners with the province, but without Toronto at the table using its leverage, I doubt that we would’ve been able to convince them to do this kind of [planning],” said Chris Murray, Hamilton’s city manager.
In Aurora, Weisner found a smaller way to plan for the future. By linking up his city’s fiber Internet network to Naperville’s, the two cities were able to establish a sort of quid pro quo backup system. If Naperville’s 911 call center goes offline, Aurora will pick up the slack and vice versa.
3. Collaborative marketing
What Bell found when working with Arlington was that the town’s proximity to the District of Columbia could be a selling point — by choosing Arlington, a business could take advantage of all that town had to offer while staying within arm’s reach of the bustling capital city.
And if multiple cities around a metro area can work together on such initiatives, they can brand the region as a whole and benefit from it. It’s about marketability; though each city is individually competing against each other for business, they all benefit from a singular effort.
That means some work on the ground as well, in order to make an individual community more desirable to live and work in. Aurora has done that by investing in the arts.
“We want to share what Chicago provides," he said. "We want to benefit regionally from that, [so we want] to make sure that we are a center for the arts and culture much like Chicago, and to attract young millennials."
Murray thinks one of the most important things is to make sure a community is welcoming of the kinds of people it wants to bring in. “You can have the best technology around, you can have the greatest housing stock around, affordable and all, but at the end of the day, people who move families to your community don’t want to live in the community because of issues related to racism or issues related to … all the things that cause problems,” he said.
Ben Blanquera, vice president of delivery and experience for the business “ecosystem” Columbus Collaboratory, pointed to his organization’s work with local businesses on new technology as an example of how to transform collaboration into a regional brand. The Collaboratory took huge databases of customer feedback from businesses in the area and developed a system that is able to identify sentiments and extract keywords for the corporate client — essentially turning an overwhelming amount of information into a usable resource.
And it was all done locally. It’s a Columbus, Ohio, technology.
“Along the way, we’ve [gone from being] the partner of a major technology partner and we’re now seen as a leader in this knowledge-based technology," Blanquera said. "And by the way, really smart people want to be in that space. So we’re now positioning ourselves to attract the kind of people who want to do these kind of things.”
“And in purely practical terms, you’ve just created a purely competitive advantage for companies across this region,” said Bell.
“Absolutely,” said Blanquera.