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When business, academic and community leaders in Manitoba and North Dakota got together last fall in Grand Forks, it was the first organized regional summit since the demise of the Red River Trade Corridor in the mid-’90s.

A second annual summit is to be held in Winnipeg in mid-September and there are plenty who believe the idea of a more structured regional economic development group is something that is more than just pretty words.

Klaus Thiessen is definitely one.

Thiessen has just returned to his position as CEO of the Grand Forks Regional Economic Development Corp. after a hiatus at a Winnipeg consulting firm. Earlier this decade, he ran Winnipeg’s economic development organization.

“There are all sorts of natural commercial and cultural ties in the region,” Thiessen said. “The idea is to do it in a more structured way.”

Next week, Lakehead University economics Prof. Livio Di Matteo will be in Winnipeg talking about a more formal cross-border co-operation in the region he calls Heartlandia, which includes northwestern Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

With a population of about nine million people, it generates a regional GDP of more than $400 billion, which is about 25 per cent of the Canadian GDP.

There is interest from many quarters in building on the region’s strengths.

“There is a need for opportunities to interact on a personal basis,” Thiessen said. “People have to get a better understanding of the strategic infrastructure and capacity of the respective regions across the border on both sides.”

Riva Harrison of Manitoba Trade said that while there are no formal discussions underway about such an organization, Premier Gary Doer believes a regional approach to economic development can be positive.

“The premier’s style is to be very engaged with governors in other states,” she said. “He has very strong alliances with a number of them. It is a way to get things done and generate business and that is ultimately the goal. Any proposed alliance would always be considered in an open mind.”

Di Matteo, who earlier this decade wrote about the wisdom of Northwestern Ontario joining Manitoba in a new province called Mantario, said there are many issues that an organized entity such as Heartlandia could advance.

“Some of the early things might be to look at streamlining commerce at the border,” Di Matteo said. “It could commit to do joint tourism development, facilitate exchange between universities and researchers and make people aware of business opportunities on both sides of the border.”

As the region’s agricultural, food processing, aerospace, transportation and manufacturing sectors mature, there is increasing interest in developing new markets within the region.

Winnipeg’s commitment to the development of an inland port will only create more motivation to bolster ties with the regional economy.

Tim Feduniw, an official with Destination Winnipeg in charge of organizing the September summit in Winnipeg, said the dialogue at those meetings is meant to be pragmatic.

“Among other things, we’re going to discuss value-chain integration among stakeholders in Manitoba, North Dakota, South Dakota, northwestern Minnesota and Ontario,” he said.

With the growth of the bus-manufacturing industry in the region — New Flyer Industries and Motor Coach Industries both have their main production plants in Winnipeg with large final-assembly facilities in North Dakota and Minnesota — an increasingly intense supplier network is developing.

Including universities and research organizations into the mix is part of the process.

“This is not just about trade,” Thiessen said.