Regional Solutions: It's Just Good Business


Think of the ''hottest'' regions in the nation, metropolitan areas where there's an enervating feeling of vibrancy, of aggressiveness, of innovation.

What comes to mind are such rapidly expanding metropolitan areas as Charlotte-Mecklenburg and the Tri-Cities of Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Such other city-county communities as Indianapolis, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Portland, Oregon, also have deserved reputations for creative collaboration and cooperation.

Even the nation-states of Europe have found a way to put aside centuries -- in some cases, millennia -- of conflict, competition and cultural barriers to develop a European Common Market, with free trade and a shared strategy for economic growth.

Yet a foreign visitor to the shores of the Chesapeake might conclude that Anne Arundel County, Baltimore and Baltimore County, not to mention the neighboring subdivisions, are separate countries.

This region's continuing Balkanization and its uninspiring and worrisome economic performance are no mere coincidence. They are tied, and until -- and unless -- we begin to overcome our differences, this metropolitan area may be destined to be relegated to the ranks of mediocre also-ran. It needn't be so.

Government in our state is remarkably streamlined, with just 24 local subdivisions and relatively few municipalities (and none at all in Baltimore and Howard counties). Our school districts are integral parts of local government and there are few of the special service districts that bog down the responsiveness of government elsewhere.

Contrast our situation with other areas: Pennsylvania has no fewer than 1,800 separate local governments, counties, boroughs, townships and municipalities. And that doesn't even include the school districts, with their separate taxing powers. Chicago has an astounding 350 separate police agencies within a 50-mile radius of the city, while Greater Philadelphia has 180 individual police agencies.

Bringing together the various units of government should be far easier here. Far less is required for this metropolitan region to become an integrated whole. At the same time, there has been little demand to increase our levels of cooperation in meeting problems and opportunities.

The business community neither understands nor tolerates the parochialism it finds among the region's jurisdictions. We must do business throughout the region to prosper. We must draw our workers from all parts of the metropolitan area. We cannot and do not have different marketing plans dictated by artificial political boundary lines.

At what point does Highlandtown merge into Dundalk? Is there really so much difference between a family in Brooklyn, South Baltimore, and its neighbors in Glen Burnie, Anne Arundel County? Aren't Woodlawn and Lochearn in Baltimore County merely extensions of the city's Liberty Heights corridor? Does anyone really care if he or she is shopping in Cross Keys, in the city, or White Marsh, in Baltimore County?

Reapportionment, creating city-county legislative districts for the first time, should be viewed not as a threat but as an opportunity. Ourtransportation network is regional. Criminals, unfortunately, cross political boundary lines. We already are a region. But our governments often continue to act like separate countries. It's a luxury we can ill afford. If we want to compete globally, we'd better cooperate locally.

And, lest you think that Baltimore doesn't need to compete globally, consider these realities: 1st National Bank is governed by an Irish corporation; Aegon, formerly called Monumental Insurance, is Dutch; Ellicott Machine sells more dredges internationally than domestically; the Port of Baltimore personifies the global marketplace in which we must compete.

Other regions in the United States have overcome their difference to develop coordinated, strategic approaches to addressing their problems. While we may not like to admit it, our beloved Baltimore Colts never would have landed in Indianapolis had not that community taken steps 15 years ago to develop a regional economic development strategy.

Earlier attempts at promoting regional cooperation here inevitably stalled on two issues -- taxes and education. Perhaps those efforts were, paradoxically, both too ambitious and too short-sighted.

Too many viewed ''cooperation'' as a euphemism for assisting an ailing Baltimore, a ''partnership'' where the benefits were believed to flow in one direction. Public officials, wary of an electorate that viewed cooperation as capitulation, rarely demonstrated the strong leadership required for meaningful change.

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