• WisBusiness

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Revival of Wisconsin Economic Summits provides timely forum for ideas


By Tom Still
The original Wisconsin Economic Summits served their purpose by fading away.

That’s not to say the four summits that took place between 2000 and 2003 were unsuccessful. In fact, the first two summits identified economic trends and strategies that continue to shape the state. The final two summits felt more like an academic exercise, however, and too few business leaders were on hand to carry the torch forward. As a result, the process ended on more of a whisper than a bang.

The revival of the summits – scheduled under a new format for this summer and fall – will try to pick up that torch as a critical time for Wisconsin’s economy.

With public meetings set for June 29 in Appleton, Aug. 26 in La Crosse and Oct. 5 in Milwaukee, summit organizers are aiming to provide a blueprint for economic growth as well as ideas for improving the effectiveness of state and local government.

One goal of the summit’s bipartisan working group of business, university and labor leaders is to put strong ideas in front of candidates for public office, with the help of economic experts who bring an outside view. A broader purpose is simply to reinvigorate public discussion about what’s working and what is not – and to sound alarms, where appropriate, about the state’s economic future.

The original Wisconsin Economic Summits delivered some lasting messages. They stressed the need to overcome city-to-city or county-to-county rivalries and engage in regional cooperation, something that is happening in Wisconsin through regional economic development groups such as New North, Momentum West and Thrive.

They also underscored the importance of Wisconsin’s ties to two robust metropolitan areas to the south and west – Chicago and the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Some regional cooperation has since emerged along what is now called the “I-Q Corridor,” with the “I” standing for interstate, innovation, intellectual property and investment, and the “Q” suggesting quality of life, workforce, education and more.

The first summits emphasized the need for industry “clusters” to form and work together. That is happening in some important emerging sectors, such as biotechnology, fresh water technology, medical devices, energy storage and information technology, but less so in traditional sectors such as insurance, printing and papermaking.

The 2000-2003 summits also urged the speedier development of a knowledge-based, tech-based economy, which is taking place at varying speeds across Wisconsin. While there are more start-ups companies today, the state still has a long ways to go before its entrepreneurial culture begins to match those evident in other states.

Investing in innovation may well emerge as a theme of the 2010 summits, which begin June 29 with a closer look at Wisconsin’s economy and what can be done to make it stronger. Summit conveners, which include Competitive Wisconsin Inc., the Wisconsin Higher Education Business Roundtable, Wisconsin Way and the Wisconsin Technology Council, hope to draw on best practices in other states to frame ideas that could work in Wisconsin.

For example, a number of states in the Midwest and beyond have seeded pools of capital, which are available to emerging companies across a number of business sectors. While Wisconsin has done a groundbreaking job creating “first-round” capital through its incentives for angel and other early stage investors, the real challenge is finding second-round dollars to move start-up companies to the next level.

One model gaining attention is the Ohio Third Frontier, which is a bonding approach recently renewed by Ohio voters. By a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, voters in the Buckeye state renewed a $1.4 billion economic development launched in 2002 with another $700 million in commitment. It passed because the program so far has created jobs and companies while attracting private investment and generating strong initial returns on investment.

There are other state models, as well, that may also translate to Wisconsin. The point is less about deciding now on what will work best for Wisconsin, but using a neutral, convening forum such as the Wisconsin Economic Summits to bring the best ideas forward.

If Version 2.0 of the summits accomplishes nothing else in this crucial election year, that would qualify as success.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, and served as moderator for the 2000-2003 summits. Learn more and register at: www.wiroundtable.org/summit.

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