What do the populations of 32 counties in four states that form the headwaters of the Ohio River have in common?
It turns out a lot.
Twenty-five years after the collapse of the steel industry put the entire region into an economic slump, the residents have adopted a commitment that the regional economy has to be industrially diverse and welcoming to entrepreneurs.
This is one of the lessons the organization called Power of 32 learned through a six-month exercise of meeting with a total of 3,300 residents in all 32 counties and asking them what they thought the strengths and weaknesses were for the region and what they want to see in the future.
"We've learned the value of diversifying our economy, and people feel really strongly that that has to be maintained," said Selena Schmidt, the executive director of Power of 32, a regional economic development initiative.
She said policy experts and public officials had been preaching the value of diversification for a long time, but that "to know that is the actual real experience on the ground makes a real difference."
The difference is that government officials will know that they have the support of the population when making tough economic choices to diversify the economy.
What also came out of the meetings is that one of the problems facing the region at large is that there are so many governmental bodies: four states, 32 counties, 230 school districts, 62 cities, 20 municipalities, 342 boroughs, 463 townships, 63 villages, 32 towns and eight special taxing districts (all in Allegany County, Md.). That's a total of 1,256 elected governments -- without including the more than 700 appointed government authorities such as water and sewer authorities.
Ms. Schmidt said that while some people wanted to merge governments, others liked the access they had to the governments that are close to their lives.
What residents on both sides of the issue agree on is the desire to have governments that work together across the region.
There is already a model for that in Cumberland, Md., where Colleen Peterson is the executive director of the Greater Cumberland Committee, an organization that works with five counties in three states.
The Greater Cumberland Committee has identified bringing broadband and a north/south transportation corridor as the keys to the economic future of Garrett and Allegany counties in Maryland, Bedford and Somerset counties in Pennsylvania and Mineral County in West Virginia.
Mineral County is not one of the Power of 32 counties, but the other four are.
In a meeting with the comprehensive planners in those five counties, the heads of their economic development department and the presidents and top staffers of the chambers of commerce, the Greater Cumberland Committee was able to clearly articulate the need for a multilane north/south traffic corridor that would open up the area for tourism and other types of economic development.
Ms. Peterson said there was access along the east/west axis, but not north and south.
What they have found in the five-county area around Cumberland, Md., is that there is more power by joining together and seeking federal aid and training than there is if one county is working alone.
Ms. Schmidt, of the Power of 32, said the 32 county region was home to 4.2 million people and had the political juice in Washington, D.C., of eight senators, and 10 members of congress.
"Obviously, that's really powerful" she said.
The next step in the process is to identify projects that can carry across the region. Committees looking into that are broken into transportation and infrastructure, education, environment, governance, economic development and people and community.
Ann Belser: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1699.