Divided We'll Fail to Thrive

Wisconsin’s unwieldy economic and state budget issues will adversely affect Madison’s economy. Yet, after a decade of accolades, the region’s mood is complacent, its leaders advancing status quo tactics.

We can overcome the impact of a troubled state economy by infusing a lot more of Thrive’s collaborative approaches into our region. But we can’t expect Thrive’s small, talented staff to be the only catalysts.

Let me share a problematic example ripe for improvement, a promising example and a huge opportunity to paint a picture of how greater collaboration will advance our region’s vitality.

Problem: Rather than work collaboratively to make the new American Family Children’s Hospital the region’s pediatric center for care, our health care providers instead operate in silos. In response, Meriter Hospital plans to hire five pediatric hospitalists, up to eight clinic pediatricians and invest $3.7 million to set up the new pediatric unit. Yet the two-year-old children’s hospital hasn’t filled its beds. Is “more choice” worth the increase in our insurance costs?

Promise: The Madison area is generally in the tech-sector minor leagues, with large out-of-state companies—the majors —regularly absorbing our best start-ups. If UW–Madison spin-offs had the volume and caliber of connections they’d find in Silicon Valley, some would grow exponentially and become major-league acquirers, enhancing our region’s growth and ability to attract more talent.

The Badger Career Network Alerts, a terrific new talent recruitment tool from the UW Alumni Association and Thrive that connects regional businesses with more than 350,000 alumni around the globe will help close our resource gap. How might we rapidly expand that network beyond job postings to include opportunities for potential investors, board members and other advisors?

Opportunity: Expanding and leveraging our cultural, innovation and food resources to bring visitors into our region offers a huge economic upside if we can realize prospects for collaboration.

To attract business meetings, tap our community’s considerable innovation talent to offer leaders and their meeting planners alternatives to typically boring business meetings. With MMoCA and Chazen meeting rooms and unique excursions involving our best UW and business innovators, Madison would supply the currently missing enzyme to enhance participants’ creativity.

The best leverage point for attracting tourists is creating signature events that draw large audiences to our region. Basel, Switzerland grows from 60,000 to 190,000 people when the world’s prestigious modern art galleries and interested buyers convene annually for Art Basel.

We need to think bigger than local in how we define and market Madison events. Let’s create a New Literature festival to draw in those who love plays, poetry and books, or showcase our role as the Napa Valley of cheese and specialty foods, a place where Slow Food thrives, with a Tour-de-Wisconsin bicycling race.

We’ve not fully realized our “visitor” opportunity in large measure because we’ve divided our efforts across too many entities. How could we move forward? Consolidate public meeting spaces (Alliant Energy Center, Overture Center, Monona Terrace) and meeting/tourism marketing under the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau, charging it to work collaboratively with UW–Madison and local arts and food groups to create new events and market the region’s overall offerings.

Merging Overture into GMCVB would be politically complex, but it’s the right thing to do. We’d save operating dollars, increase meetings, draw larger events and provide the broad outreach we need to attract more visitors. We’d stand a better chance of sustaining a cultural gem that serves the region, not just Madison.

Our region is at a tipping point. On one side, a once-radical community grew up but remained fairly parochial. Think Iowa with a more interesting history. On the other, by moving toward greater collaboration, a dynamic community enjoys a thriving business and cultural scene. Think Austin with cross-country skiing.

I know which one my kid would move back to after she graduates from college. What about yours?

Kay Plantes is an MIT-trained economist, business strategy consultant and author. Contact her at kay@plantescompany.com.

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