It’s not clear whether outgoing Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. will remain intact, but the public-private job creation agency’s chief is making a case to keep it running.
Mark Hogan, the agency’s secretary and CEO, told reporters Tuesday in Beloit that he’s reaching out to Gov.-elect Tony Evers’ transition team to persuade Evers that the 7-year-old agency—known as WEDC—has hit its stride and should remain the state’s main jobs organization.
Hogan’s statements come as Evers signaled last week that he will propose a plan to dissolve the organization. He hasn’t given details on how he might replace the partially taxpayer-funded agency, but he has said he was considering reverting back to the former state Department of Commerce.
Locally, the agency has provided tax incentive packages and grants for industrial development and redevelopment, including a $500,000 grant to help redevelop the former General Motors plant site and $5.5 million in tax credits tied to Dollar General creating jobs at its 1 million-square-foot warehouse.
The agency reports its grants, loans and other incentives in Rock County total $12 million since 2015, and the deals helped create 1,430 jobs in the county.
Forward Janesville Vice President Dan Cunningham said he thinks the agency has developed a reputation for working closely with local stakeholders and economic development officials.
Cunningham, who handled government relations for Janesville’s main chamber of commerce, said agency officials in the last few years have been “responsive” and have met personally with Forward Janesville representatives to show them how programs would work locally.
“I think it’s an organization that started with, I wouldn’t say with hiccups exactly, but it took time to find its stride. It’s turned into an organization that has helped the state,” he said.
Evers, a Democrat, told reporters he wanted an economic development agency run by the state, not as a public-private partnership. Walker created WEDC in 2011 to replace the Department of Commerce through a law change passed by the Republican-led Legislature.
It’s not clear whether the Legislature, which is still dominated by Republicans, would go along with a proposal to dissolve the agency.
Hogan, a former banking executive for M&I and BMO Harris, has been at the agency’s helm for the last three years. He believes it should continue to operate under Evers because he thinks it is “nimble” enough to tackle the incoming governor’s priorities.
“Governor-elect Evers won the election. He has a prerogative. He’s earned the right to be able to take the state in the direction he thinks is appropriate,” Hogan said.
“What I’m intent on doing over the course of the next few weeks is to make sure that he and his transition team understand that WEDC has a very strong foundation. We’ve got good programs; we’ve got good people, and I believe that there will be areas that will be priorities for Governor Evers that he can implement through the WEDC.”
The agency has been dogged by criticism about bad loans and scathing audits that came out in its earlier years, and some lawmakers expressed concern about a lack of transparency and oversight.
In a talk to a local Rotary Club at the Beloit Public Library, Hogan said his agency has grown its programs from 27 to 30. It also has an emerging emphasis on workforce recruiting, with programs that aim to attract military veterans and lure back UW System graduates who moved to other states after graduation.
Those programs key in on “positive migration” of young, educated workers that the state is already seeing, Hogan said.
“I think they would very much align with what Gov.-elect Evers would look to do from a transition standpoint,” he said.
Cunningham said it’s not clear to him why the incoming governor would want to abolish an agency he thinks has helped create momentum locally.
“Just as difficult it was to create it (WEDC) and get it up and running successfully, my fear is we don’t need to take steps back in economic development. Everybody’s playing this game. Every community in every state says it has the greenest grass and the best schools,” Cunningham said. “I don’t want to spend a lot of time essentially re-creating how we do economic development in this state. We’ve got to keep running. Everybody else is running.”
WEDC spokesman Mark Maley said the state budget has funding in place through part of 2019 for agency programs that are already underway, including a half-dozen job fairs to help place veterans in jobs in Wisconsin.
Other initiatives, such as school technical training programs and a marketing campaign to attract young professionals to move to Wisconsin, are rolling out in Chicago and in 13 other cities in the Midwest, Maley said.
He said Hogan’s talk in Beloit was scheduled months ago, and it was “not related to the (gubernatorial) election or the transition.”
Evers’ transition team did not respond to an inquiry by a Gazette reporter on specific plans Evers has for the agency.