26 Jul A cry for unity for the economy of southeast Wisconsin
Source: UW Communications
MILWAUKEE – When the topic of economic crisis comes up, an area that seldom comes to mind is southeastern Wisconsin. With institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Area Technical College churning out talented graduates every year and a long history as a manufacturing center, the area seems to be a relatively stable environment that would attract big business.
However, factors such as the gradual switch of manufacturing to automation, as well as outsourcing, have led to a loss of jobs, and the universities, which the state takes such pride in, are rapidly losing graduates to other states that provide better opportunities. The region has been losing opportunities at a brisk pace, which have been simultaneously driving down the economy and quality of life.
To address these twin issues of forging a new industry and maintaining a strong base of assets in southeast Wisconsin, We Energies, in conjunction with the Medical College of Wisconsin, constructed a panel of entrepreneurs and educators to discuss the future of science and technology in southeast Wisconsin. Held July 22 at the We Energies Auditorium, “Using Science and Technology to Accelerate Economic Growth in Southeast Wisconsin” featured a discussion on the best steps to draw new resources into the region, while at the same time holding on to the ones already there.
“What we’re trying to do here is develop momentum,” said William Hendee, moderator of the panel and vice president of the Medical College of Wisconsin. “We’re really just starting the process, not trying to fully answer questions.”
The panel began the process of answering questions by looking at the obstacles in the way of progress, and wound up dividing the issue into two fields: structural and organic. The structural side of the argument centered on the problem of a very high tax base compared to other states and regions, which stands in the way of attracting new industries into the community and is not fully offset by allowance and concessions. The tax base also hurts the work force in the region, as graduates from Wisconsin colleges have one more reason to leave the state and take their training with them.
The prime organic issue to come up was the issue of unity, more specifically the fact that there was no specific leader to keep the region together and put all resources in one place. With a shrinking workforce and the ideas of science and technology rapidly taking “center stage,” Bronson Haase of Pabst Farms explained that lots of ideas were floating around but it all comes down to implementation.
Michael Cudahay, founder of Marquette Medical Systems, illustrated this lack of leadership by saying that people he had talked to seemed proud to tear down the old smokestacks that stood in the way of progress, but no one knew exactly how to proceed when asked.
“There’s a critical mass we need to reach … we need a champion for this state,” Cudahay said. “We can’t just be a service community.”
The panel stressed that not only is attracting technology to the state a good idea – it is absolutely mandatory to get the region out of a rut. Southeast Wisconsin is falling behind Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois in both workforce and technology issues, and with every graduate who departs Wisconsin the gap gets larger and larger. Tech sectors such as nanotechnology and rehabilitation are Wisconsin’s fastest growing group, and without organization it is likely they will depart to other locations.
“It isn’t about education for what we have now, it’s about education for who’s coming,” said Carol Brown, president of Waukesha County Technical College. “If we don’t know that we’re not in alliance with the business sectors, we’re not going to be able to move forward.”
To develop these industries and encourage their migration to southeast Wisconsin, the main course of action discussed was to bring together what already exists in the region – cutting through the competitive issues between communities and getting closer to the private sector. The primary issue facing the region is one of perception, convincing entrepreneurs that this is the place to set up shop.
To do this, the panel suggested focusing on the intellectual capital that is already in the region: bio- and nanotechnology. Many of the universities and engineering schools – such as the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University – have been putting resources toward patient rehabilitation and biomedical engineering, and are all working on the same tracks but with little cooperation. John Ulmer of the Medical College of Wisconsin pointed out that to bring these projects together would “streamline” the entire process, and be beneficial to the whole region.
“The medical and education environment attract people regardless of business environment,” Ulmer said. “[Without a system] we’re going to hemorrhage this intellectual capital out of the state.”
Defining this system was a unifying theme of the conference, as it needs to be looked at by the business community, government, economic developers, media and the nonprofit sector. To get the ball rolling, panelists threw around a range of ideas, such as uniting the efforts of the Governor’s Economic Summit with further technology summits and creating a council effort to coordinate efforts of universities and companies. The main idea which came up was simply providing a jump start to the region and persuade citizens that this was a problem that can be – and has to be – addressed now.
“The challenge here is perception … how do we convince the outside world that this is a place to invest in?” asked Howard Jacob of the Medical College of Wisconsin.
“There has to be a stepping up to the plate where you can say ‘At the end of the day, we know how to do this.’”
Les Chappell is a staff writer for the Wisconsin Technology Network and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.