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Regional economic development group resets itself

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Jim Leute
July 21, 2013
The economic development organization promoting an eight-county region that includes Rock County has a new name and a new strategy that officials think could do something the previous didn't: Attract significant businesses to south-central Wisconsin.
Madison Region Economic Partnership is the new name for Thrive, which launched in late 2007 to promote the region as one “of intellectual curiosity and innovative, creative energy.”
The region still includes Columbia, Dane, Dodge, Green, Iowa, Jefferson, Rock and Sauk counties.
The reason for the name change was straightforward, said Paul Jadin, who was named president of the organization last fall after stints as secretary of the state Department of Commerce and its replacement, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
While the title "Thrive" captured the potential of doing business in this region, it lacked a focus, he said.
“Thrive was a great verb, but it didn't do much to identify what we are or where we are,” Jadin said. “Thrive could have just as easily applied to Paducah, Ky., or Saskatchewan.”
In print, the renamed organization is referred to as MREP.
In conversation, it's referred to as MadREP, a purposeful reference to Madison, the heart of the region, Jadin said.
Since the group's formation six years ago, critics have said it had everything to do with economic development in Dane County and little to do with the seven other counties.
Others, however, countered that Madison-centric does not mean Madison-only.
“Everyone is thinking more regionally, and we've got to lead with our largest metro anchor,” Jadin said, noting that nearly 43,000 people commuted into Dane County for work in 2010.
MadREP's mission is a five-plank platform that will focus on economic competitiveness; innovation and entrepreneurship; human capital; marketing, and improving the region's cooperation, leadership and diversity.
James Otterstein, Rock County's economic development manager, has long been involved with MadREP and its predecessors. He recently co-chaired the new organization's economic competitiveness working group.
“From a big picture perspective, regionalism provides an opportunity to leverage accessible and useful assets that may not necessarily be physically located within a specific ZIP code,” he said.
Examples, he said, could include research and development resources at UW-Madison, commercial passenger service at the Dane County Regional Airport or specialized service providers that don't have a local presence.
Otterstein said the value of any collaborative project is the investment that each entity makes and what it gets back. Defining that value is sometimes difficult, he said.
Rock County and its individual municipal entities have contributed next to nothing financially to MadREP, other than the time of their economic development experts.
Janesville-based J.P. Cullen & Sons has pledged between $10,000 and $24,999 to the organization's five-year strategy that kicks off this year with what Jadin said will be a $1.1 million budget, about 80 percent of which will be funded by the private sector.
Other significant corporate sponsors with Rock County connections include Alliant Energy, SSM Health Care of Wisconsin, Associated Bank, Johnson Bank and BMO Harris Bank.
Mary Willmer is BMO's president in the Janesville market and is a member of MadREP's board of directors. She also co-chairs Rock County 5.0, a local public/private economic development initiative Jadin said is the most advanced local strategy he's seen.
Willmer said MadREP would represent a more regional approach than the previous Thrive.
“While the city of Madison is a critical part of the Madison region, MadREP really represents the greater Madison region,” she said. “There is a definite awareness, now, that in order for MadREP to be successful, the other communities and economic development teams must be working together constantly to leverage the strengths and resources that each brings to the table.”
When asked specifically for success stories that could be tied to Thrive, Jadin said they are “meager.” Because of that, he's hesitant to approach local governments for financial commitments.
“I won't go back to them until we have something to deliver,” he said.
Willmer said Rock County needs representation in the revitalized organization, and she suspects the organization will look toward Rock County 5.0 as a model for leveraging economic development professionals into one team focused on a larger area instead of smaller communities.
“MadREP will be a source of expertise and resources that we may not be able to afford locally, such as experts in international relations and business development, partnerships with the University of Wisconsin and connections to businesses in the Madison area,” she said. “Most important to me is the ability to educate and inform and ultimately market the Rock County area to the greater Madison region.”
Willmer and others have said the ongoing SHINE Medical Technologies development is an example of how technology developed on the Madison campus could be put into production in the outlying counties.
Willmer said Rock County 5.0 recently tapped into a MadREP database to put together a package of information for a company that wants a specific type of building in the county.
“In the case of this company, they like Rock County, and, if they ultimately end up locating in Beloit or Janesville, it will benefit all of the Madison region,” she said.
Jadin said that's how MadREP and its partners can work to help communities expand and create jobs.
“These problem-solving collaborations, whether they span the entire region or affect just one community, are among the most important elements of our ongoing success,” he said.


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