Madison is a pretty wonderful place to live. Even a well-delivered dose of opened-eyed reality does not diminish that fact. But we’ve been slow to acknowledge that our enviable quality of life will not by itself ensure our economic stability, to say nothing of growth. We have to aggressively pursue new, innovative strategies for developing businesses, attracting talent and investment, nurturing creativity and entrepreneurship and letting the world know we are doing all that and more. And while Madison with all its well-documented assets is perfectly situated to be the heart of these growth strategies, we need our partners and allies in the communities surrounding us to become the regional force that can actually compete with Austin and Columbus and Portland and Raleigh and—let’s not kid ourselves—Ames and Omaha and Sioux Falls.
And if it doesn’t happen in 2013, it’s not going to happen.
If that sounds dire, it’s because it is dire. This is as critical a moment in time for a particular civic accomplishment as any in our history. This year must be the year the right people with the right leadership and the right plan with the right support create a vision for the greater Madison region that will within ten years produce measurable growth in job creation, infrastructure, diversity, creativity, wealth and recognition. Twelve months from now we have to be able to assume the majority of the people in Dane County and the seven counties surrounding it know what “Advance Now” is and what it means for them. So too must someone in Boston, San Francisco, Munich and Beijing. 2013 must be the year the reality meets the reputation. Yes, we must advance. But more importantly, we must advance now.
Regional economic development has been a mantra for the better part of two decades now. Urban planners, economists and analysts from Richard Florida to Richard Longworth have so successfully made the case for a growth and development strategy, rooted in a defined, geographic place, that is responsive to twenty-first-century globalism, technology and human capital, that there is really no alternative. Even city-states like Chicago, Boston and San Francisco aren’t going it alone. They are epicenters of many hundreds of square miles of interconnected municipalities, industry sectors, research institutions and places where people want to live. This is the way the world functions right now; think regionally or whither and die. And here’s the rub: When this conversation started twenty years ago, the models were Silicon Valley and the North Carolina Research Triangle. Then came Denver and Austin. And everybody tried to be one of those four, Madison included. But while we were talking—and not really paying attention—other regions passed us by. And that is the sober reality of 2013. The greater Madison region is no longer among the leaders in creating a regional economic develop-ment strategy. It is trying to keep up. We are treading water.
To be fair, it’s not been all talk. Seven years ago, early in the development of the Collaboration Council—the regional group that spawned Thrive, the current economic development entity—Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Jennifer Alexander led a visit to Denver by a group of fifty-four business and civic leaders and elected officials. That trip is one of the jewels in Alexander’s legacy at the chamber. Like a visit to Portland by a similar group a decade earlier that changed the dialogue on land use in ways that are still being felt today, the Denver trip inspired visions of a new way of doing the business of economic development in our region.
The Denver model of regional cooperation made sense. The mix of business assets and quality of life amenities were similar. The results in Denver were impressive. In fact, the biggest difference between the two regions—a difference loudly lamented by Denver leaders—was the presence of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. They were envious. The Madison folks were energized. They returned home, and they talked. For years, they talked. Some of it was necessary. Getting eight counties, cities like Janesville and Dodgeville, current economic develop-ment officials in counties like Iowa and Sauk, with their own visions for growth, to work together—and most importantly, to get past a long and deeply held concern about Madison as the eight-hundred-pound gorilla—was a huge undertaking. To a degree it still is. But while semi-annual meetings to review data, understand current trends, catalogue assets and build trust did indeed foster a sense of collaboration, the country and the world were moving and changing. And eventually we learned we were falling behind.