For decades, local leaders have promoted the value of regional cooperation. They point to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport as Exhibit A, and ask where we’d be without that economic engine. They tout Super Bowl XLV, which pulled together dozens of cities and corporations, and shared the bounty.

Last spring, in a newspaper op-ed, the president of the University of Texas at Arlington and an urban futurist touted regionalism again. The headline: “North Texas is stronger together.”

“Its major economic centers,” wrote UTA’s James Spaniolo and co-author Richard Florida, “can no longer afford to compete against one
another or chart their separate destinies.”

If so, then who calls the shots? Texans don’t have much faith in a central authority. And the unbridled pursuit of self-interest, the so-called invisible hand, has worked pretty well here.

Some issues are so big and expensive—water supplies, transportation, and air pollution—they demand a coordinated response. Call it situational regionalism. In the 1960s, the federal government offered money for only one airport, not two. With that ultimatum, Dallas and Fort Worth found common ground. But  competition—not cooperation—defines the region, and it forces every city to raise its game. Most intuitively understand this. 

After Super Bowl XLV, several leaders proposed a regional sports commission. Many cities, including Houston and Indianapolis, have similar panels, and DFW had one in the past. But the idea quickly died here. Opponents feared that the balance of power would settle in Dallas, and plum projects would be steered that way. Jerry Jones figured he could do just fine on his own, armed with Cowboys Stadium. And smaller towns weren’t willing to risk being hemmed in or marginalized.

Fort Worth arguably gained the most from Super Bowl XLV, in large part because city officials acted alone and persuaded ESPN to broadcast from Sundance Square. They secretly courted the network with a presentation at its Bristol, Conn., headquarters and deployed sports celebrities like Nolan Ryan and Gary Patterson during a local visit.

ESPN’s open-air studio and round-the-clock programming became the focus of Super Bowl week. When ice storms paralyzed the area, Sundance became even more central, because stranded fans could still walk to bars and restaurants. Fort Worth’s cunning play paid off, with the kind of publicity you can’t buy. And it proved the value of creativity and, more important, going solo.

Fort Worth never considered asking permission from anyone—and the same general thinking applies to business and economics. North Texas has 13 cities with more than 100,000 residents, and another dozen with more than 40,000. Each battles hard for growth, even if that competition sometimes creates distortions.

Arlington subsidized two professional sports stadiums with no public transit. Dallas props up an aged Cotton Bowl that rarely hosts big events and sits near a light-rail station. Fort Worth invested heavily in a major logistics center in the Alliance corridor, and it efficiently handles planes, trains, and trucks. Yet Dallas is creating another logistics hub in its southern sector. Dallas and Fort Worth both opened convention hotels in recent years, even with the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine already sucking up many of those convention dollars.

In these cases, coordination may have led to more prudent development. But take a wider view, and the sibling rivalries have done a lot more good, because they push communities to emphasize differences and sharpen identities.

Consider the contrast between walking in Sundance Square and shopping in North Dallas. Dining in Uptown versus grabbing a steak in the Stockyards. Going to a Rangers game in Arlington and playing golf in Las Colinas.

The college scene at UNT in Denton couldn’t be more different than SMU’s Hilltop. Arlington has a district for entertainment, Dallas for the arts, and Fort Worth for museums.

All these areas compete for consumers, workers, and attention. And a natural order has evolved, according to a draft report by UTA and Florida’s consulting firm.  They found that complementary work-force clusters have developed here.

Fort Worth-Arlington excels in manufacturing, transportation, and logistics. That fits, given the presence of GM, Lockheed Martin, American Airlines, and BNSF.

In Dallas-Richardson-Plano, the dominant sectors are information technology, telecom, business services, and publishing. Not surprising with Texas Instruments, AT&T, Verizon, and the like.

As a researcher, Florida first identified the rise of the creative class, including engineers, scientists, professors, artists, and professionals in business and medicine. These workers are highly coveted, and they’re typically drawn to big urban areas. The Dallas side of the region has nearly three times as many creative-class workers as Fort Worth, the draft report says. And their average pay is 11 percent higher, confirming that Dallas is a much brighter beacon.

Insightful information, but only Fort Worth can decide how to respond. Recruit more cool companies? Invest more in transit?

In the report, researchers wrote that Cowboys Stadium boosted the region, but no one benefited from the cutthroat competition to land the facility. Arlington would surely disagree. The $1.2 billion stadium recast the city as a can-do place. It helped land the massive Viridian real estate project, boosted interest in downtown Arlington, and raised UTA’s national profile.

Even Irving, which previously hosted the Cowboys, came out just fine. Although the Cowboys relocated, work accelerated on a light rail line between D/FW Airport and downtown Dallas, with stops in Las Colinas.

Arlington’s sales tax went for a stadium and Irving’s went for the Orange Line. That’s not how central planners might have drawn it up, but that’s how North Texas rolls.

Mitchell Schnurman is an award-winning business columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.