• WisBusiness

Monday, July 19, 2010

Transforming Wisconsin's economy will help meet 21st century challenges


By Tom Still
Wisconsin’s economy has been made and remade over time. Nineteenth century wheat fields gave way to modern dairy farms and cranberry bogs; territorial lead mines and turn-of-the-century logging camps eventually bowed to world-class manufacturing.

None of that happened without innovation and risk. Ingenious and often entrepreneurial people made bold decisions, in private and public settings, to keep Wisconsin prosperous in the face of changing markets and technologies.

Wisconsin is remaking its economy yet again, this time to compete in a world where the challenges to its prosperity are more likely to come from Shanghai or Mumbai than Chicago or Minneapolis. As the state enters an election year in which a new governor and Legislature will be elected, the candidates for those public offices and more deserve to hear some of the best ideas available for – yet again – transforming Wisconsin’s economy.

That transformation is well under way in part because the markets wait for no one, and because Wisconsin represents only a fraction of the national and world economies. It is also under way because some bold choices have been made. Those choices in recent years include building on the state’s research and development foundation, standing by investors who stand by homegrown companies, and working to awaken an entrepreneurial culture that was all but dormant.

Those choices were made during a decade in which Wisconsin lost 160,000 jobs in manufacturing, a shock wave that reverberates through the state to this day. Economists believe three-quarters of those jobs will never return. To prosper anew and to protect its historic quality of life, Wisconsin must now nurture emerging industry sectors as well as the physical and educational infrastructure that will support them.

The ideas offered in the Wisconsin Technology Council’s 2010-11 white papers, released this week, are intended to set the table for a renewed public discussion about improving the state’s tech-based economy.

Improving access to investment capital for entrepreneurs, building a more educated workforce, creating a stronger business climate and speeding technology from the lab to the marketplace are major themes in those reports. To read the full report, visit: http://www.wisconsintechnologycouncil.com/publications/white_papers

Some of the ideas contained in the white papers are new. Others are restatements and updates from previous white papers, legislative proposals or executive branch proposals. Some are based on the Tech Council’s knowledge of innovative programs in other states. And some are ideas brought forward throughout the course of the year by entrepreneurs, researchers, investors and others who deal daily with issues surrounding the tech-based economy in Wisconsin.

Others will weigh in over the course of the summer with more ideas that build the case for urgent action. The Wisconsin Economic Summits will provide such a platform, with guidance coming from groups such as Competitive Wisconsin Inc. and the Wisconsin Economic Development Association.

Some would suggest bold ideas won’t fly in Wisconsin for various political reasons. But that’s what some observers said six years about Wisconsin’s Act 255 investor tax credits program, now called “Accelerate Wisconsin.” That program is today cited as a national model for targeting tax credits around emerging tech sectors.

While constructive, bipartisan steps have been taken in recent years, Wisconsin cannot rest on its laurels. People in other recession-battered states, such as Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, also understand that economic forces are rapidly reshaping the world, and that there may be no second chances for those who dawdle. If states are the laboratories of democracy, so are they citadels for economic innovation. Wisconsin has a history of providing such innovation – it is time to do so again.

-- 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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