CHICAGO — The mayors of Milwaukee, Wis., and Gary, Ind., said they hope to ramp up regional collaboration with each other and Chicago in an effort to shed the “Rust Belt” moniker for a thriving “Fresh Coast” reputation.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and new Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson touted the region’s strengths and pointed to opportunities for partnership during a luncheon in downtown Chicago sponsored by the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit group that focuses on regional economic development.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was scheduled to be on the panel but did not show up after a City Council meeting ran long.

“We have allowed outsiders to define us as the Rust Belt, but that’s not who we are,” Barrett said. “I think it’s time that we as a region promote America’s ‘Fresh Coast.’ ”

Regional collaboration could strengthen the region’s transportation and higher-education systems and help create a new fresh-water technology hub, the mayors said.

Gary, one of the most distressed cities in Indiana, has its own role to play, Freeman-Wilson said.

“Chicago is an anchor, but Gary has a lot to offer — our lakefront, our industry, our airport, all of our employees,” she said.

“If we work together, there’s a lot to offer,” she added.

Barrett and Freeman-Wilson talked about the importance of strong regional airports to give flyers options, and the impact that good train service would have for strengthening the region.

Fights for jobs among several Midwest states has been fierce.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Ohio Gov. John Kasich frequently boasting about poaching jobs from Illinois and other neighboring states.

Barrett, who launched two failed attempts to beat Walker for the gubernatorial seat in Wisconsin, said the first step toward building a mega-metropolis centered around Chicago is setting aside competition.

“The most destructive thing we see is when people try to pit people against each other,” he said.

Barrett said Milwaukee has positioned itself as a top destination for water technology companies at a time when access to fresh water is expected to become increasingly important.

Buoyed by the Great Lakes, the three states won’t be fighting amongst each other for access like other states already are, he said.

“Water is one of our strong suits,” Barrett said, adding that the Great Lakes feature 20% of the world’s freshwater supply.

“You’re going to see lawsuit after lawsuit of states going after each other over water, and if we’re smart, we’ll put ourselves in a spot where we’re far better off,” he said.

Collaboration among the area’s universities, job-training institutes and city colleges is another potential partnerships, the mayors said.

“This is one of the areas of great potential,” Freeman-Wilson said, proposing that schools like Purdue University, the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin could join together for education and job-training programs.

“The need is so great in our respective communities because we’ve been devastated by the recession,” Freeman-Wilson said.

“There are some basic aspects that cut across regional lines and we should take advantage of that,” she said.

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