Tri-state effort to grab economic brass ring

Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi craft a plan to become a new

America has always been more an amalgam of regions than a union of 50 states.

The Southwest, for instance, has more in common culturally with northern Mexico than with the Northeast, earning it the nickname "Mex-America." The Pacific Northwest shares more economically with Western Canada - an area often called "Cascadia" - than with Texas or Tennessee.

Now a new "super-region" is emerging in the mid-South that could become an economic powerhouse. The area encompassing Memphis, Tenn., and parts of Arkansas and Mississippi have always shared their own sense of history and culture - from tufted cotton fields to the sultry blues.

But the regions have largely operated as distinct identities when it came to trade and commerce. Now business and political leaders in the area are launching a quixotic quest to create a new regional economic hub.

While the task won't be easy - old habits and lines on a map can't be erased overnight - many think the idea has merit. "Memphis has a long way to go, but ... it could be on the avenue to prosperity," says David Savageau, author of "Places Rated Almanac."

The region would be unusual. Compared with other areas of super-region status - Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Baltimore-Washington, or the New York tri-state areas - Memphis is a real region. It's not a single state like North Carolina. It doesn't include a Washington or New York. It is also marked by independence and competition between the states.

But governors of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee say all this can be overcome. Earlier this year, they created a tri-state alliance to turn the region into a distribution center to the world.

Consider these factors: a new runway at the Memphis airport, increased presence of Federal Express Corp., a huge United Parcel Service distribution plant, plus a proposed highway through Memphis, linking Canada to Mexico.

As it stands now, the mid-South's economy is larger than 15 states and ranks as the world's 49th largest. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, for one, says geographical boundaries will mean less in the next century: "It is not a future trend; it is a present trend with future implications."

For the most part, people living in super-regions are connected by cultural and economic ties. They read the same newspapers, shop at the same stores and malls, and enjoy the same social experiences.

Until the alliance formed in May, regionalism wasn't viewed in this warm and cozy light. Actually, the three states operated as islands, competing against one another for new industries and tourism.

The alliance hosted a conference on regional strategies last month in Memphis to promote regionalism across the US. Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout wants to see the mid-South recognized as "the leading laboratory for regionalism in the United States."

But first some critics must shift mind-sets of the past. Many business and community leaders still see the area as small individual economies instead of one large regional one.

"The No. 1 thing I hope we can do with this is communicate the importance of looking past geographical boundaries and compete on a global scale," says Jim Flanagan, president of Mississippi's DeSoto County Economic Development Council and an alliance committee member. "There are synergies that can be achieved by joining together and tackling some of the challenges to economic development."

The alliance hired a North Carolina strategic-planning firm to develop a blueprint for becoming a super-region. North Carolina has perfected regionalism in its own state. In 1990, the Raleigh-Durham region was formed to highlight the area's assets.

The state's 100 counties became seven regions, each concentrating on an economic attraction. "The region concept has really allowed the state to put some companies in rural areas that may not have gotten a look before," says Leah Burton of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership in the Raleigh-Durham area.

That's exactly what the mid-South super-region needs. Before gambling hit nearby Tunica County, Miss., its citizens lived in one of the country's most impoverished places in the heart of the Delta.

The success of a super-region, say experts, depends on how far people are willing to commute and how big the media market is. Critics stress that a super-region is born naturally as opposed to artificially by the way of blueprints and commissions.

The mid-South region seems poised for the challenge. "Memphis today sits on the front edge of enormous opportunity," says Charles Tuggle, a longtime Memphis lawyer who supports the regionalism concept.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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