The Time Is Now

The Time Is Now

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.

Wisconsin State Journal publisher and Thrive board co-chairman Bill Johnston was the first to suggest Thrive needed some expert advice. “We were in the same boat in Lincoln,” says Johnston of his previous hometown. “We needed a more formalized structure.” Johnston convinced the board that hiring a consultant “can be significant in helping a community appreciate what it knows, and what it doesn’t know.” The consultant Thrive eventually hired was Market Street Services out of Atlanta. Market Street had worked, or was currently working, on economic development plans for Nashville, Richmond, Charleston and—most impressively—Austin.

The founder and CEO of the firm is Mac Holladay, a guy with an impressive resume, a quick wit and an ability to be blunt but still tactful. He will tell us if we look fat in this dress and we will either lose weight or find a new dress. Holladay told the members of the Collaboration Council the Madison region was underperforming compared to Lincoln, Columbus, Salem and Columbia, South Carolina, among peer regions. He said we were resting on our laurels, we didn’t have an effective strategy to advance and, most painful of all, nobody knew who we were, to say nothing of where we were.

Rarely has a slap in the face been so welcomed. The feeling in the room was, “We gotta get this guy and we’ve got to get to work.” Market Street was hired. A year later there was a comprehensive competitive assessment. Yes, it took a year to get it. Yes, it was worth it. In addition to agreement on strengths and weaknesses, five sectors were identified for targeted strategies: advanced manufacturing, agriculture and food systems, health care, life sciences, and design and technology. One year later there was a plan: Advance Now.

To quote from the Market Street website: “The Advance Now process, carried out in two research phases and two action phases, created a holistic, transformational economic development strategy that builds on the Madison Region’s specific assets and a tangible implementation plan that will guide strategic efforts and outcomes over the next five years. Thrive and its partners have articulated consensus around the region’s potential and a prioritized set of actions necessary to achieve that vision. The Advance Now Strategy will also enable the Madison Region to obtain designation as an Economic Development District from the federal Economic Development Administration.”

That last sentence is important, as its means access to federal dollars. The plan includes five strategies for economic growth: Advance Regional Cooperation, Leadership and Diversity; Advance Economic Competitiveness; Advance Human Capital; Advance Innovation and Entrepreneurship; and Advance the Madison Region’s Story. And thus the picture gets clearer: Advance Now.

New Thrive president Paul Jadin is certainly an important player. So is Thrive board co-chair and chief fundraiser Johnston. So are a couple of dozen regional civic and business leaders. But at this particular moment, arguably the most critical role in this process belongs to Holladay. He’s the architect, he has a track record of success, and he’s got everybody’s attention.

“Advance Now is very much a new direction,” says Holladay. “It’s a new level of commitment [and] a great step forward for the region. I seriously believe the five goal areas inside that strategy are what’s going to determine the quality of life, the quality of the economy going forward for the Madison region.”

Holladay acknowledges it’s a big undertaking and very different from the level of activities the region has been involved in before. “You could almost say in some ways it’s like a start-up company in that the steering committee and the community and hundreds of people that were involved really want to push the envelope forward. You’ve got a lot of things to start. You’ve got programs to build, you’ve got staff to hire, you’ve got start-up measures and all kinds of things with serious new goals and serious new efforts to be made. And, hopefully, it’s going to be done in an improving national economy instead of one that was really quite stagnant when we started the process. I think the stars are aligned. It’s now a question of implementation. Now it’s a question of let’s go and get the work done.”

“I gotta tell ya,” he continues, “I was seriously impressed with the level of enthusiasm. The steering committee members who presented the imple-mentation plan and strategy at the public meeting did a great job and I was very proud of what they did and the way they did it. I think it’s a matter of not losing the momentum and going forward in a very positive way that shows the community, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this is different than anything we’ve ever done,’ and that’s going to be the key to the kingdom. The first year is a vitally important one in terms of really showing that, ‘Hey, we’re doing things differently here now.'”

The first year is underway. MG&E president and CEO Gary Wolter, as former president of the Thrive board and someone who cares about this community a great deal, has watched the process closely. “We need a quantum leap in our efforts and results. We’ve taken this about as far as we can internally and that’s why we brought in outside experts, to kick it up a notch.”

Wolter says Advance Now is the roadmap. As for the quantum leap, he says it “means breaking [the roadmap] down into manageable chunks and then bringing the resources of the community around each chunk and moving it forward.” 

Holladay is right there. Madison, in his mind, needs a quantum leap from a place he says was complacent bordering on arrogant. “You all have got to get to work and you’ve got to understand that the specifics of what’s in this plan, from the advancement of human capital to the whole issue of advancing the Madison region story, public relations efforts … really getting in the game is what’s going to be required.”

And Holladay is well aware of the environment in which this work must take place. “Sadly—and this is true all over the country—because of the pressure that’s on state governments and so many different directions and their lack of revenue, what most regions are understanding is you really kind of got to do it for yourself. If you get some help, great. If you don’t, you’ve gotta go forward.”

The man entrusted with moving the effort forward is as familiar with the pressure on state governments as you could ever want. Paul Jadin was the very first head of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation that Gov. Scott Walker created to replace the—in some minds—outdated Department of Commerce. You may have heard of some problems with WEDC. They’ve been vetted. There’s no smoking gun. There was a lapse in collections. It’s been fixed. And it will have zero impact on Jadin’s ability to do his job.

If anything, Jadin saw what was happening at the state level in terms of fewer resources, the degree of economic activity that is in fact happening at the regional level, and it has informed his thinking about Thrive and Advance Now. Jadin’s been mayor of Green Bay and president of the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce. He knows this stuff at every level and he says of the nine economic development regions in Wisconsin, Madison’s Thrive must lead the state in economic development success. Which, he points out, is currently not the case.

Oh, and let’s put one more thing to bed right here: the title Thrive will go away. “We want to become the first region in the state to incorporate the new Wisconsin brand,” says Jadin, “and that means finding a new name for ourselves. The world will never know who Thrive is. It’s a good verb, but somehow we’ve got to tell the world this is Madison; we’re the Madison region.”

In the eyes of many, it’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of this. While the Collaboration Council, and then Thrive, were created in the shadow of years of regional skepticism of Madison’s disproportionate share of all things good, it’s finally safe to say we’re beyond that. Whatever name is finally attached to this region’s economic development future, the word Madison must be part of it. A business owner doesn’t say she’s located in Lakewood; she says she’s in Denver.

New Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Zach Brandon says that identification as the Madison region is as much a determinant of Madison’s role in Advance Now as its population base. And he says the perception of Madison in that role is changing, if not completely changed. “There is still a caution,” he says, “and rightfully so, not to buy a product that doesn’t benefit them [other places in the region]. We’d be the same way.”

Brandon credits Alexander with breaking down that perception. “We’re enthusiastic participants in not only taking the blueprint and building from inside the Madison region, but also bringing resources to the rest of the region,” he says. “It’s about collaboration, not competition.”

Jadin supports all that with what should be obvious: Thrive simply cannot play favorites. “When we get a call, we determine who has sites that meet all the specifications they’ve asked for, whether it’s rail or water, or X number of square feet of warehousing, etc. Everybody submits their plan. Everybody says along with this our local community’s willing to do a TIF, or willing to give you land. You put your best incentives forward, and we get out of the way. We need to show that we are one hundred percent agnostic when it comes to where in this eight-county region a business locates or grows, as long as we’re working desperately to get that business here in the first place, and I think we’ll have a much better opportunity to get the economic development professionals on board if they know that we’re not going to be playing any role in location issues.” 

Three weeks into the job, Jadin already had an organizational structure, a hiring plan (just a couple to start—he wants to be efficient, take advantage of resources already in place, and let people know he will use their money wisely, although more will have to come) and a PowerPoint presentation that had already been to Beaver Dam, Columbus and “a few other places.” He’s hit the ground running.

Holladay’s glad to hear it. “As they start this first year in 2013, there are a number of things we want them to measure. We want to know about the number of start-ups that are coming out of the university. We want to know abut the small-business start-ups not related to that. We want to know if they got the regional leadership counsels going, have they got the volunteer mentors underway, how many folks have they visited on their business retention programs, how many visits have they made to look for prospects out there across the country. So we’ve got a whole bunch of things that are reflective of a start-up operation that we want them to be measuring as we look forward to seeing the results over time of some of those bigger issues: increasing those annual wages and lowering the poverty rate and lowering the number of people who don’t have a high school diploma and so forth.”

Jadin’s all over the retention visits. He’s done some already. He says Thrive should be doing a thousand a year, “and right now it’s probably less than one hundred.” But that’s just the beginning. Greater Madison has to get its mojo back. Ten years ago the UW–Madison research machine spawned a home run start-up or two, Jamie Thomson was on the cover of Time magazine and the University Research Park was a magnet. If anything that scene has improved. We’ve got the lakes, parks, bike paths, the farmers’ market, etc., etc.

We know what we’ve got. That’s the problem. We think it’s enough. What we don’t have is competitive wages, enough college grads who don’t just visit for a few years but stay here, resources for making businesses feel needed and appreciated so they grow here and, believe it or not, all the good stuff we do have … we don’t talk about enough!

Holladay emphasizes this over and over. “We believe very strongly that one of the things that hasn’t happened [in Madison] in the past is you do have to celebrate your success. That’s a good thing! You know, it’s that whole story about if you’ve done it, it ain’t braggin’. I think that’s what I’m hoping for here as [they] get started—that they’re gonna keep scoring and they’re gonna tell people about how they’re doing.” 

Last November, CNN Money ran a list of the top six cities where start-ups are thriving. In other words, what we want to be. The list included Boulder, Cincinnati, Nashville, Provo, Omaha and Des Moines. That same month the New York Times had a story on a new public market opening in Grand Rapids. It was expected to attract 500,000 visitors a year.

Alexander thinks she knows one reason for these success stories. “They have more focus. You know Madison. If you put three people in a room you’ll have four opinions.”

Alexander says we have a region of creative and innovative energy. “But you know our strength can also be our weakness. And the dark underbelly of that is that we create, we create, we create, and we’ve got to have some energy about commonality and just go after it.”

This is going to take some money. According to Johnston, “We can make this happen. We raised money in 2012, and we’ll be fine.” He says fundraising is a three-to-five-year process. Opportunity Austin raised more than $14 million over five years. Madison might not need that much, but it’s going to need a lot.

There’s a plan in place. Now there must be a brand. We must not shy away from a potential reach that spans the globe. And this community has to understand the importance of a first-class economic development effort and it must work together, an eight-county community, to make it happen and then spread the word.

“As we go forward, I think we have to be able to answer that question, why Thrive, why our region?” says Jadin. “And I think your readers do need to appreciate the fact that this isn’t about stepping on the toes of chambers of commerce and economic development corporations in the counties and so forth. It’s simply about branding and banding. We want to make sure we’re doing a better job of telling the world who Thrive is.”

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine