Interview with Peter Frosch of Greater MSP on Regional Economic Development Challenges, Strategies and Trends

Peter Frosch, senior vice president and chief of staff at Greater MSP, the Minneapolis Saint Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership, in this interview takes us on a tour around this booming metropolitan region in the United States: its economic development strengths, challenges and strategies.

Some of the points which Peter addresses in the interview:

  • How Greater MSP approaches economic develoment and place branding
  • The role of storytelling
  • How to build a regional economic development partnership
  • Mega trends and changes which will affect economic developers in the coming years
  • How to measure the impact and ROI of initiatives aimed at developing a region’s economy and strengthening its brand.

Peter, before becoming SVP, Strategy & Partnerships and Chief of Staff at GREATER MSP you worked for an environmental NGO, and as legislative director for a member of the US House of Representatives. What triggered your interest in place branding and economic development?

Working in Congress I had a front row seat to the Great Recession. As the global economy unwound over a period of weeks in 2008 I was interacting with the rating agencies, the Federal Reserve, and Wall Street firms as we were all trying to understand what was happening and what to do in response.

It was an intense education in how the global economy works. Almost immediately the United States government became very focused on economic development, and I found myself splitting time between Capitol Hill and the neighbourhoods in and around St. Paul, Minnesota, looking for opportunities to support job preservation, creation and investment.

We did some big things that had a transformational impact not only on economic development, but place making too, including a major federal investment in the $250 million rehabilitation of St. Paul’s downtown Union Depot and a $1 billion light rail line connecting St. Paul, Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota.

In your experience, what role do politics and political agendas play in the place branding context?

Place branding is rooted in the authentic stories of people – the values they hold, the traditions they share, the vision of a shared future they come together to realize. Effective place branding internalizes what’s real about a people and connects to identity. It draws us into a story and compels us to participate in that story. It doesn’t feel like marketing.

In my experience, politics is similar. A great political leader can get beyond stale talking points and connect with something essential we believe about ourselves, help us understand an issue more clearly, spark new thinking.

Both place branding and politics are about storytelling that connects.

Can you briefly tell us about the regional economic development partnership between Minneapolis and Saint Paul. When was it founded and why? How does it work?

In Minneapolis-Saint Paul our brand reality surpasses our brand awareness. Four generations of consistent economic growth produced a robust economy with the lowest unemployment rate of any major US city, world-leading cultural institutions and a thriving middle class.

Yet, there is work to do to secure and extend our success. We need to tell our story on the global stage.  We need to make a clear commitment to a model of economic growth that benefits all residents. And we need to move aggressively into the fast-growing sectors of the new economy.

Leaders in business, government and higher education created GREATER MSP in 2011 to help bring the region together to take on these and other big competitive challenges that no city, no company, no university can tackle alone.

In 2019, this metro is on the cusp of breaking through as a globally-leading economy, but that’s going to take bigger thinking and bolder action. The GREATER MSP Partnership is rallying our region and helping to lead that change.

GREATER MSP was founded as a best-in-class economic development organization supported by an investor base of over 100 investors, over 70 percent from the private sector. Twenty skilled professionals immediately got down to work attracting business investment, building a regional brand and creating an economic development strategy.

Doing this work at a regional scale was new to Minneapolis-Saint Paul. In less than 3 years, GREATER MSP exceeded our initial 5 year goals for job creation, capital investment and brand awareness.

That performance secured GREATER MSP a place in the community, but our region was asking for more. More opportunities to engage, more focus on liability, talent, innovation and inclusion. Leaders across the region wanted to be owners, not consumers of GREATER MSP.

So starting in 2017, led by senior executives in our metro, GREATER MSP began a process that would transform us from an economic development organization into a true regional economic development partnership. In a matter of months, we replaced the vision, updated the mission, sharpened the strategy, re-imagined the role of the Board, and created a completely new structure that puts us at the forefront of the field.

This February, GREATER MSP is re-launching as a next generation regional partnership. We’re already seeing the results. As they say in advertising, “watch this space.”

To your mind, how important is it nowadays for cities and regions to build coalitions, in order to reach their economic development goals, e.g. through place branding?

GREATER MSP is first and foremost a cross-sector partnership. If we’re not working in a coalition, we’re not doing our job.

Our charge is to change the trajectory of a major metropolitan economy – that takes a broad-based coalition whether the focus is brand-building, business growth, cultivating innovation or building a world-class labor force. No organization has enough money, talent, time or authority to effect and sustain any of these changes.

Coalition work is necessary and difficult, and it is also incredibly exciting. One of the joys of my job is experiencing the dividend of partnership. Better ideas, faster connections, solutions that scale and produce real impact.

We’re about to refresh our global brand strategy and we’re committed to doing it in partnership, even though the challenge of making a creative process more collaborative makes us a bit nervous.

How can place branding contribute to the sustainable development of cities and regions?

Sustaining growth and prosperity requires big decisions and long-term investments in people and infrastructure.

Harvard Business School refers to these investments as “the Commons” and argues they are the foundation upon which any successful economy and community is built.

In the United States and other Western democracies, we are struggling to create the sense of shared destiny across the various segments of our societies required to make big, public investments.

But there are solutions. All of us love stories. They move us. They force us to think in new ways. And we have a stake in the story of our community because we care about how others view the places we call home.

The process of creating and telling the story of our cities and regions can bring people together and build bridges across boundaries of race, class and geography. Place branding is important, in part, because it has the power to foster a collective identity.

Like many great regions, Minneapolis-Saint Paul is growing and changing quickly. The story we tell about our community needs to be refreshed so it remains real and relevant. We have a new regional vision to create a better model of economic growth that includes and empowers all members of our community. The work we do this year to refresh our brand will be anchored in that ambition.

That’s important to me. We want do more than describe who we are to the world, we want to announce what we are working to become, and invite others to be a part of that big project.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul is a place where the American dream is still alive. A new narrative is part of what’s needed to renew the dream for the next generation and extend the dream to everyone in our community.

Which broader trends and developments do you observe, likely to influence the work of economic development professionals in the years to come?

The convergence of huge changes in demographics and technology. Our communities are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. At the same moment, AI, 5G, blockchain and autonomous vehicles are about to change the nature of work.

The scale of this change isn’t unprecedented, but it’s likely more significant than anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. Leaders will be tempted to respond with the kind of solutions we use during changes in the economic cycle. But this is bigger than a cycle and demands a more creative response. If we’re about to experience a fundamental transformation in who we are and what we do then we need to re-design our systems to meet the needs of the future. That’s true for transportation, workforce development, housing finance and many other systems designed in a previous generation to serve a different economy.

And if the economy is changing, economic development as a field needs to adapt. We’re anticipating change in Minneapolis-Saint Paul and doing new things. I mentioned the redesign of GREATER MSP.  That’s helping us break out of the traditional boundaries of economic development and focus more broadly on competitiveness.

We are negotiating relationships between economic development, workforce development, placemaking and community development. We are abandoning siloed 20th century industrial models in favor of ecosystem models where we give up some control but get speed, innovation and scale in return.

And we’re building up our capacity in research, analysis and communications.

One of the greatest value propositions of a regional economic development partnership in the coming years will be its ability to help a community understand and adapt to a flurry of change.

Your thoughts on the current state of “Brand Minneapolis”? 

Formally, “Brand Minneapolis” is supported by multiple campaigns. The convention and visitors bureau champions the “City by Nature” brand, putting our many urban lakes and America’s top rated park system out front. For last year’s Super Bowl LII, a new “Bold North” brand was launched and generated over $4 billion in exposure.

Informally, the brand is what we hear from many visitors experiencing Minneapolis for the first time, which I would summarize as: “smart, clean and global.”

If charged with developing the branding strategy for a metropolitan region, how would approach this?

That’s one of our roles at GREATER MSP. We start with research, both qualitative and quantitative.  Stakeholder interviews are central in this data gathering process and involve our Board, investors, non-profit partners, corporate leaders, government entities and many others.

We are in the process now of building a new team to co-create a refreshed regional brand for Minneapolis-Saint Paul. This team will be responsible for research analysis, agency choice, brand exercise, process, brand option presentation, and campaign planning.

The team will provide more insight in the development of the brand, but those individuals and their organizations will be even more critical when we move into implementation.

How to measure the impact and ROI of place branding initiatives linked to economic development?

Today we use the standard approach to measurement, but rethinking metrics will be a part of our branding work in 2019. Our first measure of success is to tell stories about Minneapolis-Saint Paul that are seen as authentic and compelling by the region itself. Our assumption is that people re-tell stories they embrace, so we’re working on ways to measure how many of the stories we create get re-told and shared by GREATER MSP’s hundreds of partners.

That will be a meaningful internal metric of the value GREATER MSP creates for its investors and partners. And we expect measuring how often our stories are used by others will support implementation of the brand strategy – it creates an incentive for us to find ways to amplify the message through partner channels.

Thank you, Peter.

Connect with Peter Frosch on LinkedIn. More about Greater MSP, the Minneapolis Saint Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership here.

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