02 Aug Can Dane Co. and Wisconsin learn from Denver?
Madison, Wis. – Dane County political and economic development leaders have received two good pieces of news. One, the fund-raising campaign of the area Collaboration Council has surpassed the $1 million mark, and two, there now is a booming area that once faced even greater regional challenges than Dane County.
The latter message was delivered by Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., who addressed a meeting of the Capitol Region Economic Development Professionals in Madison. Clark visited both Milwaukee and Madison to describe how the economic renaissance of Colorado’s largest metropolitan area came about, and much of what he said sounded too good to be true.
Imagine a nine-county region with 3.3 million people where municipalities adhere to a code of ethics that sometimes dictates steering interested companies toward neighboring cities.
Call it a rising tide that lifts all boats, or call it metropolitan Cumbaya, but political and business leaders in the Denver area now swear by it. “It’s really not a radical idea to get communities working together on a regional basis,” Clark said.
32 mayors, 32 development agendas
It wasn’t always this congenial, however. While the rest of the nation was enjoying an unprecedented economic boom in the late 1980s, Denver was mired in a recession due largely to weakness in the oil and gas industries. To make matters worse, there were long-standing feuds and turf wars between communities, and a “Dem Guys” attitude toward neighboring communities and economic centers in Denver, which exercised considerable power because it controlled the region’s water.
At one point, Clark said mayors openly boasted about their attempts to steal sales tax revenue from Denver and other neighbors. “You can imagine what harmony this creates among regional communities,” he deadpanned.
Clark recalled the first meeting convened to promote regional cooperation, but he doesn’t remember much conversation. “You could hear forks touching the plates,” he said. “The room was full of animosity, starting with the 800-pound gorilla which owned all the water in the area.
“It was a painful experience. We struggled to try to start thinking differently about ourselves.”
In time, the region’s economic woes forced an attitude, or in Denver’s case, an altitude adjustment. Despite periodic bumps in the road – Colorado’s version of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and a ridiculously easy ballot initiative system that puts commercially harmful measures before the voters – Denver started thinking of itself not as a series of gerrymandered cities, but as a destination – a brand new brand.
By working together, the metro area was able to establish a new convention center, a new airport, a new science and cultural facilities district to support the arts, and a new stadium authority that financed new homes for both the Colorado Rockies and the Denver Broncos.
Much of the focus was on key economic clusters like aerospace, information technology/software, energy (including renewables), and biomedical, but the Denver EDC also has played a role in improving transit.
The regional code of ethics does not permit communities to steal from or sell against one another, and there are sanctions for violators. (To his ever-lasting embarrassment, Clark was one of those sanctioned, after the Denver EDC wrote an advertisement that sold against a neighbor.)
Technology has enabled communities to develop an e-mail feedback loop to foster communication. If one city does not have large enough tracks of land for a particular development, its economic development personnel will recommend others in the region. “You have to be an account rep for the region,” Clark explained. “You’re required to act on behalf of all the other partners.”
In the case of Adams County, where officials complained that they were not seeing any benefits from the new regionalism, officials in other cities used the feedback loop to point out the county’s weaknesses – a sub par labor force and a lack of suitable buildings, among them. The advice was taken to heart, and when more than $400,000 in public money was allocated to bring a call center to Adams County, it signaled a renewed ability to foster job creation.
“Now, they are like a juggernaut,” Clark said. “People are scared of them.”
Dane County cooperative
Jennifer Alexander, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, noted that Madison officials traveled to Denver in February – not for the purpose of becoming the Mile High City, but to learn from its regional approach.
Whether metropolitan areas in Wisconsin can create this level of cooperation remains to be seen. In Dane County, a Collaboration Council has been established to strengthen the Capitol Region’s economy, and although its work is just beginning, it doesn’t face the obstacles Denver encountered.
According to Collaboration Council Fund-raising Chairman Rick Phelps, a former Dane County Executive, the $1 million raised for the Collaboration Council is entirely from private-sector sources. In addition, the council has announced the names of 27 new members to a body that now numbers 57 and is taking on an increasingly regional look.
Alexander noted that the Collaboration Council was established in 2004 to help Dane County grow its own key economic sectors, work on quality-of-life issues related to its economic assets – such as transportation – and work to develop a culture of regionalism.
There was talk of a broader regional organization encompassing several counties in south central Wisconsin, but decision-makers opted to first concentrate on Dane County. “There were no shortage of entities and people working on economic development,” Alexander noted, “but there did seem to be a lack of focus.”
• Tom Still: Economic collaboration in Denver sets tall goal for Wisconsin
• Local group building Dane County economic development corp.
• WIN Northeast Wisconsin Chapter Launched for Region’s Entrepreneurs