The Time Is Now

The Madison region is on the clock to execute a well-honed strategy for advancing the economy—or else

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Zach Brandon

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.

Bill JohnstonWe 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

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