So what is Ann Arbor’s region?
In our first post in this series, we noted the importance of the concept of regionalism in current political discourse. But we also noted that there has been little discussion of the impact of regionalism on “the overall health and long-term development of communities, in other words, to the public good.”
First, what is a region? It is a general term, of course, but there have been a number of attempts to define our region. Here is an overview.
Let’s Make a Plan
Broadly speaking, in its simplest formulation regionalism is practised by information sharing and coordinated planning across jurisdictional boundaries. In Southeast Michigan, the regional planning agency has since 1968 been SEMCOG (the SouthEast Michigan Council of Governments). This is the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization for Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw, and Wayne Counties.
As their website explains, SEMCOG is the contact point for many governmental programs, including regional transportation planning under MAP-21 (Federal trust fund), air and water pollution under those Federal acts, housing and land use under Housing and Urban Development (Federal) and many other Federal planning projects under MFPRS.
SEMCOG is also known for its data collection and summarization of items such as census figures, and its projections of population, job growth, etc. These are sometimes taken as predictions, a mistake. (It would be entertaining but time-consuming to go back 20 years and track how closely these projections have been made real over time.) On the basis of all these data and projections, they consider trends and how to address them in their work program.
SEMCOG doesn’t implement or do. SEMCOG facilitates discussion and makes plans. Here is what the site says about how they operate (emphasis is mine):
All SEMCOG policy decisions are made by local elected leaders, ensuring that regional policies reflect the interests of member communities. Participants serve on one or both of the policy-making bodies — the General Assembly and the Executive Committee. These bodies act on recommendations developed through SEMCOG’s various engagement methods. We engage regional stakeholders from local governments, the business community, and other special-interest and citizen groups.
The significance of that statement is that all parties are equally represented. That is a governance model that is very easily understood.
Regional Transit Coordination
The Regional Transit Authority, formed as a result of state legislation, involves just four counties, all of which are also part of SEMCOG. As we noted early on, there was some degree of fuss about how representatives were to be allocated to four counties and the City of Detroit, but after some down-to-the-wire legislative high-jinks last December, it materialized as a reality. The authority is temporarily housed on the SEMCOG website, where meeting notices are to be found. (Evidently, minutes are not yet being made public.)
Information on the RTA is only sketchily available. It will, according to its legislative mandate, coordinate the transit agencies within its borders (currently, DDOT, SMART, and AAATA). In the future it may also create some regional high-capacity transit corridors. According to an account by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the RTA is still looking for a source of operating funds. It is working with a small grant from MDOT and a minimal appropriation from the original legislation. One possibility was use of local bus operating funds, which would have reduced the ability of local transit agencies to provide transit. That has now been excluded by agreement. The authority could place a millage on the ballot for all four counties next year, or could attempt to impose a special vehicle license fee, which would also require a majority vote across the four-county area. (No opting-out by individual counties is possible.)
Good for Business
One of the drivers for regional planning has been to enhance the opportunities for economic development.
An early attempt at a regional economic entity in Washtenaw County was the A2Success venture. This was an initiative of the Board of Commissioners and took the “suits around a table” approach. In October 2007 a number of community leaders were assembled to launch a county-wide effort to boost regionalism in several areas, including education, transportation, business marketing and incubators, and human services. (One of the participants was a guy named Rick Snyder, a local entrepreneur.) They formed “action teams”. Several projects were launched and took on their own identities. One was ReImagine Washtenaw; another was the effort at a countywide transit authority. The “A2Success” title referred to the notion of rebranding all of Washtenaw County as Ann Arbor. The idea was that Ann Arbor was a nationally recognizable location with a favorable image. Indeed, SPARK (an economic development not for profit that is partly supported by tax dollars) has characterized itself as AnnArborUSA. Although A2Success is still listed on the Washtenaw County Economic Development webpage, its website is no longer active; an annual report was last published in 2009.
While SPARK has retained its “AnnArborUSA” title, it has pushed into new territory. It has had a business incubator in Plymouth Township (Wayne County) for some time. In 2011, it moved into Livingston County as well. In a telling statement at the time, its CEO, Paul Krutko, is quoted as saying, “We recognize the old parochial boundaries that are from the 18th Century … are not how the 21st Century works”.
Now those boundaries have been expanded over six counties. Greater Ann Arbor includes not only Washtenaw County and its adjacent semi-urbanized neighbors Livingston and Jackson Counties, but also rural Lenawee and Hillsdale Counties, not to mention Monroe County (which is due south from Detroit).
Located at the crossroads of the nation, anchored by the University of Michigan and home to one of the world’s most highly educated workforces, the Greater Ann Arbor Region is equipped and ready for business. No one can imagine, engineer, build and deliver your idea to the world better than we can.
Talk about a reach! It was announced in MLive this month by Councilmember Christopher Taylor. SPARK is, of course, involved. As quoted by MLive,
Ann Arbor SPARK president and CEO Paul Krutko said that the new region will help all parties involved by allowing them to take advantage of the Ann Arbor name while giving companies more flexibility when exploring the region.
The geographic form of this enlarged Ann Arbor is easily traceable to Governor Snyder’s Regional Prosperity Initiative, which divides the state into ten economic zones. We are Zone #9. As the page describing the initiative acutely observes,
Michigan has numerous regional entities, including regional planning and development organizations, metropolitan planning organizations and workforce boards. Unfortunately, they were designed in such a way that results in overlapping goals and competing priorities.
And in another paragraph:
As it stands today, many of Michigan’s regions and their various public planning and service delivery entities have overlapping responsibilities yet competing visions for their economic priorities. The absence of a broad based regional vision and coordination of services create both redundancies and gaps.
So what does the Regional Prosperity Initiative amount to? It is a competitive grant program. As the Governor’s message indicates, the intent is to avoid additional “layers of government or bureaucracy”. Regional entities are encouraged to apply for grants from $250,000 to $500,000 (it is a little unclear whether that is a one-time grant or annual) to enact a 5-year “regional prosperity” plan that will have a “performance dashboard and measurable annual goals”. This is classical Management By Objective language. The required participants are split between existing educational, “workforce development” (typically training and employment counseling), economic development, and transportation agencies. Clearly the intent is to create an efficient business environment with good transportation and readily available employees throughout the region, as well as to facilitate recruitment of new business to the area.
Something is missing
So what do all these regions have in common? Mostly, they have no power and no relationship to the population of the region. And they are lacking a reliable funding source. SEMCOG has some power in that it allocates grants, and its funding is by dues paid from the constituent governments, who are all represented. The Regional Transit Agency will eventually have the ability to levy taxes (if the measures pass) and to make changes in local transit provider plans so that the area’s transit is better coordinated. But the funding for those local transit plans is mostly based on funding by the localities where they are based, so that the issue of governance of this additional layer of bureaucracy will likely re-emerge over time. Neither of these agencies has the power to pass or enforce laws and regulations over the region. The economic development initiatives appear to be most active as marketing efforts.
It is notable how variable and inconsistent the regions are in their definition. Washtenaw County is included in the greater Detroit metropolitan area in two, and separated from it in another. (What in the earth does Washtenaw County have in common with Hillsdale County? Not the politics, at least.) Does it make sense to try for “regional cooperation” when the regions keep shifting?
In the end, all of these efforts are destined to be limited in effect, because they have no effective governance mechanisms. Unless Michigan localities choose to be blended into regions, or unless the State Constitution is radically amended, most of these efforts will be talk, even if very well-informed talk by estimable citizens sitting around those tables, and staff generating reports with many tables of data. As we indicated in our first post of this series, it is very difficult to get localities, especially townships, to give up any level of sovereignty.
ADDENDUM: Alert readers will have noticed that I left out one recently-discussed region encompassing Ann Arbor: the “urban core” that AAATA is basing its recent expansion on. We discussed that at length in a recent post, Once Again, AAATA Exceeds Its Reach, and the post that follows it.