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WisBusiness: Collaboration Council to Push Economic Development for All of Dane County

By Brian E. Clark

No one doubts that the Madison area is going to grow, what with the University of Wisconsin spinning out start-up companies, low unemployment and numerous national magazines touting the regional as one of the top places in the country to live, study and do research.

But how the region expands is the subject of great concern, says Jennifer Alexander, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce.

Which is why the GMCC and other economic development groups created the Dane County Collaboration Council to work together to promote the region and help guide its growth.

WisBusiness.com editor Brian Clark recently interviewed Alexander and Rafael Carbonell, the GMCC’s economic development director, about the council and its goals:

Brian Clark: What exactly is the Collaboration Council?

Jennifer Alexander:
It is a regional approach to economic vitality and growth. It consists of business people, educators, government people and nonprofits that have all come together to look at the regional economy.

The boundaries that we are looking at now are Dane County. The thing that makes this initiative special is that it brings a lot of groups together.

There is no shortage of activities for economic development, but they are happening by Monona, by Fitchburg, by Verona, by Sun Prairie, by Madison and so on. By economies grow regionally, so we need to work together.

Now, we hope to have different entities working together. We’ve had business and government working on development it separately. This brings them all together.

The third piece that makes this unique is that there is a heavy emphasis on quality of life. It is respectful of the region in which we live. We want to raise all boats and the term that’s used is “enlightened economic development.” We want to enhance quality of life along with advancing economic vitality.

Clark: Who got the ball rolling on this?

There was no one group that got the ball rolling. I think the stars were aligned for this to happen. Government and elected officials were interested, and business – as part of the chamber’s strategic plan - wanted to focus on this. You also have a vibrant education community in Madison Area Technical College and UW-Madison that are savvy and understand that economic vitality is part of their future.

Some of those dynamics brought people together. We’ve had several meetings and our design and planning tams have identified five key initiatives. It’s been progressing from there.

But this effort would not have gotten off the ground if it hadn’t been for a $125,000 donation from philanthropist John Taylor. Without his intellectual leadership and financial backing, this project would not have gotten off the ground.

Clark: What are the five initiatives?

Rafael Carbonell:
Our overarching goal is to grow Dane County’s economy in a way that enhances the quality of life here. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. The five initiatives are:

  • Business retention and recruitment;
  • Work force development;
  • Intergovernmental cooperation
  • Creating a brand for Madison and Dane County; and
  • Quality of life, analyzing the region's economic assets and opportunities.

Clark: What are you doing now to sell this to the broader community.

We have taken our “road show” to different groups in communities outside of Madison. There has been a little bit of initial skepticism, which is normal. But overall the reception has been fantastic.

We have stressed that this will be regional and collaborative and emphasize quality of life as well as economic vitality. A lot of this is relationship building. I’ve been to all the meetings. Other people who have attended on a rotating basis are Jennifer (Alexander); Phyllis Wilhelm of MG&E; Deb Archer, president of the Greater Madison Convention and Visitor Bureau; Dave Phillips, executive director of the Verona Area Chamber of Commerce; Tom Spitz, president of DMB Community Bank in DeForest; Gary Wolter, CEO of MG&E; and Ed Clarke, a vice president at MATC.

Clark: What is next?

The next step is fund raising, which will come primarily from the private sector. It hasn’t been determined how much we will try to raise, but the national benchmark for the annual budget of an office with six employees is $700,000. That’s an average, but we don’t know if it would be that much. If all goes well, the economic development entity could be launched next July after implementation teams have done their work.

Alexander: What comes out of this all could be how we do business in the future. It would be how we do economic growth as a regional collaborative with a shared focus. We would have an economic development corporation that would be a single point of entry. We don’t have one at this point.

It’s odd for a region like the greater Madison area or like Dane County not to have one.

Clark: Why doesn’t Dane County have one?

We have so many positive things going for the region that we sometimes get complacent. We have a lot of wonderful things already in place. Perhaps it wasn’t deemed necessary in the past.

We’ve got the beautiful geographic assets, we’ve got the university and other things that have made it come easy for us. We’ve also been very dependent on government for employment, but the dynamics are changing. We can’t continue to rely on an economy that’s driven largely by government.

Clark: Has that change come in the last few years, sparked by the state’s budget deficit? Was that your wake-up call that the economy needs to diversify?

There certainly is an increased awareness on people’s part that it’s not the same anymore, even though unemployment is lowest in the state. We have a number of leaders who recognize if you sit on your laurels and don’t gear up for the future, things can turn very quickly.

Clark: Hasn’t there also been an anti-growth sentiment here, with people liking things the way they are and opposition to sprawl?

That’s a good point. There is an awareness in this region because we have grown by 60,000 – the size of a Janesville – that it’s no longer if we will grow, but how we will grow and how we will manage it.

Carbonell: We also know that we have to be proactive to be part of the global economy. It won’t necessarily just come to us. It’s great to have the university and government base – and we are fortunate to have that – but you need to do more. This council is a recognition of that.

Clark: Looking at the global economy, what are the kind of businesses that would want to locate here?

There are some obvious ones and healthcare and biotech are two because of the research of the university.

Carbonell: We have a lot of human capital and are one of the most-educated counties in the country. Around 42 percent of our residents have bachelor’s degrees and 8 or 9 percent have Ph.Ds. The question is how do leverage brilliant minds and commercialize them for the creation of businesses and jobs.

Traditional economic development is about casting a large net to recruit and attract a large company. It’s sometimes called “chasing smokestacks.”

We think a better return on investment is recognizing what our assets are now, leveraging them, adding value and boosting them for the future. Then you recruit in a highly targeted manner.

Alexander: Equally important, we want to grow our own businesses. We need to figure out how we take what you have and foster that. We have entrepreneurs and serial entrepreneurs among us. We want to encourage tech transfer. We need to continue that.

Clark: What areas is Dane County competing against?

Minneapolis, Austin and other university communities.

Clark: Are you competing with Milwaukee?

I think it’s more synergistic. I think we can work together. Milwaukee has some real strengths with its manufacturing and we have research strength. I don’t view it as competition. We won’t both communities to be successful.

Clark: Will there be a marketing program to promote the area’s biotech companies?

We won’t be promoting any one niche sector, but we will be positioning all of Dane County’s attributes.

Clark: Do you think the council will have any role in Bio 2006 in Chicago, the big biotechnology conference?

There has been discussion of that and we would encourage that. The Wisconsin Technology Council would be the lead. When we started the Collaboration Council, we hired two consultants and they did a study of all the things that were going on and the conclusion was that there were a lot of really fine things happen that don’t require collaboration. They just require awareness and promotion. We want to focus on things where collaboration is needed most.

Clark: Are there any roadblocks to making this effort work?

We are going to need to raise capital, primarily from the private sector, to make this happen. Business will have to drive it.

The other threat is if the region perceives this as too Madison-centric. It is important that our actions are consistent so the Middletons, Sun Prairies and Veronas in the next phase get very involved in the effort. We want the new teams to reflect a regional approach. Eventually, we could expand beyond Dane County. That is our long-range goal. Right now, we want to show results and that this can work in the county. We want to ring out.

Carbonell: I think surrounding communities are enthusiastic. It is very encouraging to hear people like Fitchburg Mayor Tom Clauder say “I get it. What is good for the region is good for Fitchburg.” That is the mindset we are trying to foster.

Each community is unique in Dane County. Everyone adds value. Taken on the aggregate, that’s more valuable than the individual community. Madison also needs to recognize that what goes on in Middleton, Verona or Fitchburg can benefit it.

Clark: Are you working with Forward Wisconsin?

That state effort promotes all of Wisconsin. And Forward does a nice job. We have the state’s Commerce Department at the table with us. We are not in competition with them. They are more of a recruitment effort, rather than a grow-your-own effort. We have a different model here.

Clark: Will the council take a stand on issues such as controlling sprawl?

I can’t speak for the council. They will talk about it. They recognize that transportation is a key part of the economic vitality here, but they also recognize that those discussions are going on with or without the council. That issue will become politically charged. With so many things at hand, we want to do things that we can advance and not get weighed down in the early stages of this.

Carbonell: Eventually sprawl will have to be addressed. But first we want to have some successes and create a platform before tackling those more focused issues.

Clark: Are there models for this effort from places like Austin, Texas?

We’ve yet to find a model that has such emphasis on quality of life. Like the Madison area, this is somewhat unique.

Clark: Would you rather have companies move here or be started here?

If they start here, they are going to be run from here and be more likely to stay here. If a firm moves part of its operation here, most decisions probably will be made from outside the area, so there would be much less local control.

Alexander: We want industries to that will do what’s best for the community and stick around. That’s part of what we mean by quality of life.


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