RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The U.S. is generally broken up into four geographical regions - the Northeast, the South, the West and the Midwest. That last region could end up shrinking if some folks in Minnesota get their way. They want Minnesota and a handful of other states to break away from the Midwest. As Mike Moen reports, it's about establishing a more promising economic future.
MIKE MOEN, BYLINE: On a morning when the temperature is struggling to reach 20 degrees, Mike Walz is working with a crew to install a new cell phone tower in downtown St. Paul. The weather is less than ideal for this type of work, but that doesn't seem to bother Walz.
MIKE WALZ: That's pretty much all we do is work out in the cold - dress warm, it's fine.
MOEN: Walz, who lives north of the Twin Cities, says while Minnesota is known for its cold climate, it's the variety of weather that keeps him in these parts year-round.
WALZ: The season change and spring and fall, it's a good time of year. You're not roasting, and you're not freezing. But the winter is good, too, because you go out in the icehouse and peace and quiet.
MOEN: Walz's enthusiasm for living here is what some academics, artists and business leaders here want to showcase as they push to have this state no longer recognized as part of the Midwest. They want the U.S. Census Bureau and other mapmakers to adopt a new region called the North, which would include Minnesota, sections of Wisconsin, North and South Dakota and even Iowa. The Twin Cities would serve as the metropolitan anchor. Supporters say it's not intended as a slight to the rest of the region; they just want to stand out.
THOMAS FISHER: I think that there are characteristics that differentiate the eastern part of the Midwest from the western part of the Midwest, and the southern Midwest from the North.
MOEN: That's Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. He's one of those leading this initiative. He says this slice of the country is more diverse, culturally and economically, than others might think and that it goes beyond ubiquitous corn and soy fields and ice-fishing huts.
But that's not enough to convince some people here, who consider the idea a bit ridiculous. Local newspaper editorials have questioned dropping the Midwest label, saying the area should focus on branding issues that have little to do with geography. Fisher says he understands that on the surface this does smack a good, old-fashioned Minnesota insecurity.
FISHER: Certainly there's been a sense of humor with all of this, and I think that's fine. I think that it's a way to engage conversations to help people think about what their place is like and what distinguishes their place - again, something I think every place should be doing.
MOEN: But Fisher says there's a little more to this than just highlighting quality-of-life issues. He says in a global economy, the Twin Cities really need to differentiate themselves from other Midwestern towns.
FISHER: Chicago is clearly the dominant city in the middle part of the country, but that doesn't mean that then the entire middle part of the country is one large, amorphous mass.
MOEN: According to U.S. Commerce Department data, Minneapolis-Saint Paul has the second-largest economy in the region. Chicago is number one, and it more than doubles the Twin Cities output. Economist Chris Thornberg doesn't think a name change will really help. While Minnesota's home to many well-known corporations, including 3M, Best Buy and Target, Thornberg says one thing companies pay close attention to is population trends. And right now the South and the West are attracting plenty of young and talented Midwestern residents. Meanwhile, Thornberg agrees with others who say this discussion should have a greater emphasis on marketing.
CHRIS THORNBERG: That is their best bet as opposed to trying to go the census and create some new, quote, unquote, "economic-named zone."
MOEN: For now, organizers say this is at the grassroots level. And no matter how they plan to re-brand this region, one thing is almost certain; you'll likely be hard-pressed to hear the word Midwest being thrown around. For NPR News, I'm Mike Moen in Minneapolis.
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