• WisBusiness

Monday, December 7, 2009

In western Wisconsin, regional economic growth has 'Momentum' of its own


By Tom Still
In parts of western Wisconsin, the ties to Minnesota seem almost as strong as those to the Badger state. Many people in Wisconsin's border counties read Twin Cities newspapers, watch Twin Cities television stations, follow Twin Cities sports teams and, most likely of all, see their economic destinies as linked to Minnesota's metropolitan powerhouse.

Western Wisconsin's economic links to Minneapolis and St. Paul are tight, but the magnet effect of the Twin Cities' economy doesn't preclude a regional identity for the Wisconsin counties east of the St. Croix River. In fact, it helps to define it.

Building on metro market ties while nurturing home-grown strengths is the role of Momentum West Inc., a non-profit confederation of 10 counties in western Wisconsin. It is an example of how regional economic development has found a niche.

Momentum West is a phoenix, having risen from the still-warm ashes of Momentum Chippewa Valley, a predecessor, three-county effort. With renewed leadership and buy-in from corporate, academic and community investors, Momentum West was born in December 2007 and now includes Barron, Chippewa, Clark, Dunn, Eau Claire, Pepin, Pierce, Polk, Rusk and St. Croix counties. Major cities in that footprint include Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, Hudson, River Falls, New Richmond and Menomonie, where the group held its annual meeting last week.

Its mission seems simple enough: Develop partnerships, leverage resources and market the region as a great place to live, work and do business. Executing is a bit more complicated, as it involves meeting the sometimes conflicting needs of communities and investors who cooperate where cooperation makes sense -- but who compete where competition is necessary.

For now, cooperation is winning out. Momentum West leaders know it's tough for individual cities or counties to market themselves in a world of competing messages. But a regional approach to defining the shared attributes of all 10 counties carries some weight, assuming the message is pitched to the right audience.

That's been the thinking behind regional economic development efforts in Wisconsin for nearly a decade. The idea took off during the Wisconsin Economic Summits in 2000 through 2003 with the realization there is no single "state economy," but rather a matrix of overlapping regional economies that don't respect city, county or even state borders.

In addition to Momentum West, those regional groups today include 7 Rivers in the La Crosse area (which include parts of Minnesota and Iowa), Thrive in the Madison area, NEW North in northeast Wisconsin, Grow North in north-central Wisconsin, Centergy in central Wisconsin and Milwaukee 7 in southeast Wisconsin. Some groups are more active than others, but they're all trying to define their regions strengths in ways that work for their collective parts.

For Momentum West, the Twin Cities economy is both foundation and competitor. The Twin Cities can draw Wisconsin companies, workers and investors into its orbit -- and simultaneously spin out economic activity on the Wisconsin side of the border.

Among the regional advantages touted by Momentum West is a well-educated workforce, in part the product of three UW System campuses (Stout, River Falls and Eau Claire) and two technical colleges (Chippewa Valley and Indianhead) as well as some private colleges and universities. Many of those institutions pride themselves on working with the business sector.

UW-Stout is a prime example. Since the late 1980s, the Stout Technology Transfer Institute has engaged dozens of companies in solving manufacturing issues, thus saving or creating jobs. Its Northwest Manufacturing Outreach Center is a national example and its technology park, a partnership with the city of Menomonie, the Stout Foundation and Xcel Energy, houses 24 buildings, more than 40 companies and 1,200 jobs.

The region can also boast of high quality of life, lower costs of living, solid communications, energy and transportation structures, and companies that fall into clusters of emerging industries (such as bio-agriculture and bioenergy), growth industries (electronics, computers, medical devices, packaging and plastics) and enabling industries (nanotechnology and chemicals).

Regional economic development strategies have their pitfalls, of course. Such regions may not be readily identifiable outside the state. Will someone living in Michigan be drawn to "Thrive" here? Will a business leader in Minnesota distinguish between "New North" and "Grow North" -- or, for that matter, think they're anywhere but in his own state? Building brands is neither cheap nor short-term. There may also be a temptation to trade city-by-city competition for region-by-region rivalry, which can be Balkanizing for Wisconsin as a whole.

The leaders of Momentum West understand those challenges and more. They won't run from their economic ties in the Twin Cities, but they won't be content to live in their shadow, either.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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