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Prosperity remains possible despite GM departure: Expert

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JAMES P. LEUTE
August 13, 2008

Mike Langley knows all too well what southern Wisconsin faces with the anticipated closure of the General Motors assembly plant in Janesville.


He was on the sidelines in the early 1980s when the steel industry in the Pittsburgh area collapsed and left 150,000 jobs in its rubble.


But after a short-term downturn in employment numbers, the area has diversified and high-paying jobs have blossomed, said Langley, a Pittsburgh-based authority on regional economic development.


“We didn’t rebound by sitting on our hands,” he said. “The rust belt no longer applies to our region.”


As a region, south central Wisconsin isn’t sitting on its hands either, Langley noted Tuesday as he addressed the Collaboration Council, a group of regional business, nonprofit, education and government leaders that met in Janesville.


The council is the parent of Thrive, a partnership comprising eight counties trying to foster economic development and quality of life as a competitive edge in the global economy.


Rock County is one of the eight counties. Dane, Dodge, Green, Iowa, Jefferson, Columbia and Sauk counties join it. Mark Cullen, chairman of the Janesville-based J.P. Cullen & Sons, and James Otterstein, Rock County’s economic development manager, sit on the council.


The 57-member council that formed in 2004 and Thrive that followed three years later are in their infancy, collecting data on the region, launching projects and building a coalition of area stakeholders to build a regional culture.


“People tend to live their lives without respect to jurisdictional boundaries,” said Gary Wolter, council co-chair and president and CEO of Madison Gas & Electric. “They live their lives that way and expect their leaders to make it easier for them to interact that way.”


The council has identified agriculture, biotechnology and health care as industry sectors that represent the region’s assets and its greatest strengths and opportunities.


John Biondi, president of C5-6 Technologies in Middleton and chairman of Thrive’s board, said the organization wants to use the region’s people and resources to grow businesses and enhance the quality of life. Recruiting companies to the area isn’t a top priority, he said.


That’s an important goal, said Langley, who in the Pittsburgh area chairs the Alliance for Regional Stewardship and is the chief executive officer of the Allegheny Conference, an economic development organization that serves a 10-county region.


Last year, 83 percent of jobs created in the Pittsburgh area came from expansions of existing businesses, he said. Ten percent to 12 percent came from entrepreneurial start-ups with the remainder from company relocations.


“You can’t ignore relocations,” he said. “But they are not the driver.”


Dave Boyer, chief executive officer of MCD in Madison, said economic development efforts and quality of life issues go hand-in-hand.


“Quality of life means different things to different people,” he said. “For some, it’s being able to get organic food. For others, it’s being able to get a job that puts food on the table.”


Boyer outlined two Thrive pilot projects intended to boost economic development and quality of life.


“Growers to Grocers” is designed to increase regional sales and consumption of locally grown foods. It connects local grocers and farmers, buyers and sellers. “Badger Boomerang” partners with the Wisconsin Alumni Association to augment recruitment efforts of local health care and biotechnology companies.


“People often ask me how many businesses those programs have recruited,” Boyer said. “That’s not our focus. We could grow the number of businesses, but that could have a negative impact on our quality of life.”


The council will meet again in December. In the meantime, Thrive and its subcommittees will continue to work on sector action plans, quality of life initiatives and other regional projects, including a “State of the Region” report, a comprehensive look at economic indicators in the eight-county region.



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