Development partnership aims to blur Nebraska, Iowa boundaries

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Article By:   |   Steve Jordon


Communities on both sides of the Missouri River near Omaha are on the verge of a unique economic development effort that would span boundaries and benefit both states.

The Greater Omaha Economic Development Partnership would add members from Iowa to market communities, encourage entrepreneurs, help existing businesses grow and recruit new employers.

If it happens, a nationally known economic developer said Monday, the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Nebraska/Iowa region would be the nation's first full-service economic development network across state lines.

That true regional effort would match the ideas of businesses and employees who don't care about governmental divisions but want the best place to live, work and engage in a community, said J. Mac Holladay, an economic development consultant from Atlanta.

“We have to work together across lines, across boundaries, if we are to succeed,” Holladay told about 200 people at a meeting of the partnership, held at the Old Market Embassy Suites hotel.

When Council Bluffs and other Iowa entities join the partnership, he said, the region can “step off and do something that nobody else has done.”

He said Austin, Texas, the Kansas City area and the Charlotte, N.C., area work together on some aspects of economic development, but barriers remain to full cooperation.

True regional economic development, he said, “is the future of this work.”

The existing partnership — nicknamed “GO!” — is the economic development arm of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce but receives its funding from donors, plus $125,000 a year from the City of Omaha.

The partnership already includes Nebraska economic development groups from Bennington, Ralston, Douglas County, Sarpy County, Bellevue, Gretna, La Vista, Springfield, Washington County, Blair, Fort Calhoun, Herman, Cass County, Eagle, Louisville, Plattsmouth, Weeping Water and Fremont.

Discussion Monday centered on bringing Iowa chambers of commerce and other economic development groups into the partnership.

Besides Holladay, those answering questions at the meeting were David Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, and Bob Mundt, president and CEO of the Council Bluffs chamber.

Also attending were Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan and his successor, Matt Walsh, who takes office Jan. 2.
Hanafan said the City of Council Bluffs already has signed onto the regional agreement. Walsh said he also favors the regional approach.

Brown said officials from both sides of the river have been talking about close cooperation for about a year and have “made huge progress” toward a formal agreement.

“It's going to change forever how we think about ourselves” on economic growth issues, Brown said.

Mundt said “really difficult conversations” between Iowa and Nebraska officials have yielded good results, and the final agreement may need to be “tweaked” soon for all sides to agree.

The Pottawattamie County Board has not yet agreed to take part in the regional partnership. Melvyn Houser of Macedonia, Iowa, a board member, said at the meeting that the board likely would consider the plan soon.

“You have to work together,” Houser said, adding that cities can learn from their smaller neighbors and both can benefit from working together.

Like other states, Nebraska and Iowa have mostly been competing for jobs and economic growth. The expanded partnership would mean cooperation.

Houser said there's a new word for it: “Coopetition.”

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