Tech +: Dane County Economic Survey Says…

ften the weather is a much-anticipated topic of conversation, especially when the forecast doesn’t look so good. But in the wake of a gloomy recession, economists have rivaled meteorologists as the popular experts of the news du jour. Like snow accumulation and school closing updates, our ears now train toward profit and loss statements and employment and wage changes.

Scott Converse, director of technology programs for the UW–Madison School of Business, has become a well-respected voice on these economic indicators locally. For the last seven years First Business Bank has sponsored the only economic survey of all Dane County businesses, conducted by the UW’s A.C. Nielsen Center for Marketing Research. It’s Converse’s job to comb through the responses and present its most interesting, and for the past three years startling, results to the local business community.

“Two years ago, we had the spike in energy costs so it just rippled throughout the entire survey,” says Converse. “Last year we were in the front end of the recession and we saw a lot of abysmal projections … This year we’ve got the abysmal actuals.” While the 2009 findings—an unhealthy mixture of historic lows and all-time highs—weren’t completely unexpected, Converse calls them “surprising nonetheless.”

“I expected numbers to be down but what I was surprised to see was the dramatic dips shown in all sectors in all economic indicators,” he says. Some of the worst performers were manufacturing with steep declines in sales, profits and number of employees, retail, and smaller firms in all sectors who serve only the local and regional markets.

“Sometimes we look at Dane County and call it an island,” says Converse. “It’s pretty clear from these results that we’re feeling the pain just like many other groups across the state and nation.”

Converse does, though, point to a glimmer of sunshine on a cloudy day. The service sector wasn’t as hard hit, and business owners are optimistic about a better ’10—as in, how could it get any worse?

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.