Every week, a few dozen men and women who oversee some of the largest companies, philanthropies, and nonprofit institutions in the Twin Cities gather as part of the Itasca Project, a private initiative focused on shaping the region's economic agenda and addressing the kind of tough issues that business and civic leaders elsewhere tend to avoid, the New York Times reports.
The initiative's consensus-oriented approach offers an alternative at a time when politics nationally — and in many state capitols — seems hopelessly divided along partisan lines. Since 2003, the group has helped persuade leaders in the region to support an increase in the state's gasoline tax to help pay the cost of rebuilding roads and transit systems, secured funding for the state's public college and university system, and created a regional agency to attract companies looking to move or expand.
What makes Itasca different from local chambers of commerce or economic development offices, participants say, is a commitment to hard data and McKinsey-style analysis and a willingness to depart from the tired script that drives many private-sector lobbying efforts. "We were concerned that this flyover land was not organized," says James R. Campbell, a local banker who helped establish the group with other business and foundation leaders and, together with the McKnight Foundation, initiated the weekly breakfasts. Existing civic groups in the region, Campbell adds, were focused on lowering taxes and reducing regulation. "We were not addressing other issues like income disparities."
While the group was instrumental in 2008 in helping to persuade legislators to override then-Governor Tim Pawlenty's veto of the first gasoline tax increase in the state in twenty years, it lately has been tackling high dropout and unemployment rates among minorities and growing income inequality. And while social issues are less amenable to business-sector solutions than crumbling roads and bridges, the group continues to push for more effective measures of the performance of local public schools.
"Sometimes it doesn't serve anybody to take credit," Jennifer Ford Reedy, president of the Bush Foundation and a former McKinsey consultant who advised the group, told the Times. "The people who need to know what Itasca is doing are the participants. That's it."