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America COMPETES: Reauthorized and Regionalized

Perhaps lost in the flurry of last month’s lame duck session of Congress, America’s flagship “competitiveness” bill, America COMPETES, passed last month when the House accepted the Senate’s text and officially reauthorized it just before Congress adjourned.

This is a big deal, because while there are several major disappointing omissions in the final bill, there is also a sense of relief and genuine progress that should be especially gratifying to the nation’s growing ranks of regionalists.

Congress both united in a difficult year to continue building the nation’s innovation capabilities and affirmed the importance of regions and place in innovation. They did this by including in the bill Sec. 603: a “regional innovation program” to “encourage and support the development of regional innovation strategies, including regional innovation clusters.” Central to this is a new competitive grant program that will make awards available to regional cluster initiatives on a matching basis.

This is a significant milestone, gratifying to us at Metro because the measure contains key features of a program we proposed two years ago and because it begins to address a major gap in U.S. economic policy. Such policy has at once largely ignored the powerful role of place and density in growth and innovation, as we noted in this report several years ago. Beyond that, policy has similarly neglected the synergistic dynamics of local industry clusters that Bruce Katz and I wrote about a few months ago. Congress’ authorization of $100 million annually for federal cluster strategies begins to address this longstanding blind spot. This gives the federal government all the rationale and impetus it needs to begin developing a significant, multi-agency clusters push centered at the Economic Development Administration (EDA) but linked to multiple other aligned agencies and their programs.

Of course, last month’s authorization is not appropriation, and funding still must come from the appropriators. But even now if Congress and the president so desire, the EDA can target resources to drive these cluster initiatives without competing for public works dollars. What is more, the new language gives the Office of Management and Budget another way to target funding for cluster investments from multiple agencies. For example, the administration’s Space Coast reinvention project required funds to be directed to EDA’s Economic Adjustment Assistance Program (which imposed various eligibility/uses constraints). Had this legislation been in place, the redirected funding could have gone directly to the new COMPETES program, thus providing the nation more flexibility to developing its Space Coast program.

The bottom line, at any rate, is welcome: One of America’s main legislative vehicles for advancing the nation’s innovation capacity has now been regionalized, and so updated for a metropolitan century.