A new slant on economic growth

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007
— Back in the day, the strategic talk in economic development circles used to be about one community competing against another.

Janesville officials would do their darnedest to lure a company away from Milton, while the folks in Beloit were trying to convince another business that the “Gateway to Wisconsin” would be a better place to relocate than Edgerton.

Fast forward several years, and economies are marketed on a regional basis.

Rock County is one of eight in southern Wisconsin that have joined together to promote the region as a global economic player. The group is known as Thrive, and its one of five in Wisconsin that have formed to brand particular regions.

Madison and Dane County interests are the primary drivers and financial backers of the movement, which last week launched its new identity and Web site, www.thrivehere.org.

Armed with an $800,000 budget for each of three years, Thrive is marketing the region as one “of intellectual curiosity and innovative, creative energy.”

That begs the question: How can Rock County, a historical hotbed of manufacturing, benefit from an economic development coalition centered in Dane County?

“No one can be certain of the specifics that might come out of this,” said John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville.

“You have to think of it as preventative care for your economy, regular checkups with your neighbors on a regional basis. That will identify problems that can be solved on a regional basis and will present other opportunities to work together and leverage yourself as a region.”

Those problems and opportunities include transportation infrastructure and work force development, said James Otterstein, Rock County’s economic development manager and a member of the statewide council that oversees Thrive.

While acknowledging the movement’s base in Dane County, Otterstein said Rock and the other counties should be able to reach agreements on particular threads that connect the region.

For example, he said, a rapid-transit system in Madison likely would dovetail into commuter transportation plans that someday would include Rock County.

“The dynamics are changing,” said Jennifer Alexander, Thrive’s president. “We live in a global economy, so we have to function in a global economy.

“The idea of Rock County competing with Dane County … it just doesn’t work that way anymore.”

Still, Alexander understands the lingering arguments for backyard protectionism. She’s seen it over the years as Thrive and its predecessor, the Regional Economic Development Entity, sought footing at dozens of community and business meetings.

“When we first started, it was seen as a Madison versus non-Madison thing,” she said. “Then it became a Dane County, non-Dane County thing.

“But ask anyone where they live, work and play. Things aren’t set by borders. The people in Rock County don’t speak a different language.”

The language in Thrive’s message focuses on growing the regional economy while preserving and enhancing the area’s quality of life, Alexander said.

Too often, she said, massive economic development efforts launch on the heels of a crisis. Businesses have shut down, environmental resources have been polluted or some other economic calamity has befallen a community or region.

“We don’t have that; we’re a very healthy region, and we want it to stay that way,” she said.

Thrive trumpets the region’s geography, existing industries, work force, educational opportunities and quality of life.

Biotech, agriculture and health care sectors are targeted as the region’s prime growth opportunities.

“All three present opportunities, but the areas where they overlap are really our sweet spot,” Alexander said. “Think of the applications when ag and biotech, biotech and health care or ag and health care converge.”

Otterstein and Beckord said it’s the agriculture and health care sectors where Rock County can contribute to and benefit from the regional coalition.

“When you consider innovation and entrepreneurship by today’s standards, you tend to think of Dane County, where lab coats are required,” Beckord said. “But when you look at the history of innovation and entrepreneurship in Rock County, it’s incredibly strong.

“I’m not ready to give up that moniker of intellectual curiosity and innovation.”

Last updated: 11:17 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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