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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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.”