28 Aug Madison is flourishing while Marinette is dying
Madison, Wis. – I am a northern Wisconsin boy – Marinette County. My hometown, Marinette, has lost over 30 percent of its population since I grew up there in the 1950s and 1960s. Why?
It can be summed up in three words: young people’s decisions. Local columnist John Roach once told me that an indicator of the strength of a community is whether its educated young people return home.
The harsh truth is that only one of the friends I grew up with who went on to college went back to Marinette. Many are here in the Madison area. For example: Jim Butman, president of TDS Metrocom; attorney Steve Meyer, who recently represented former State Rep. Scott Jensen; attorney Peter Gardon, a successful telecommunications lawyer; and estate-planning attorney Mark Burish.
Why is Madison, which is situated in one of the fastest-growing counties in the state (Dane), more attractive than Marinette and other Wisconsin cities? When I grew up, Madison held sort of a mystical quality for northern Wisconsin kids, and I think that sense that the Capital City also is the state’s most – and perhaps only – cosmopolitan city, still captures the imagination of kids that want to, with apologies to the late Frank Sinatra, escape “these little town blues.”
Here are a few reasons for this mystique.
In the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the city has one of the premiere research universities in the world. UW-Madison annually spends more on research than almost any other university nationwide, and this is a leading indicator of why young people move here and stay here.
Livability is another factor. The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau like to highlight the fact that our area wins Top 10 awards for this, and Top 10 rankings for that, but a lot of places have bike trails, lakes, and universities.
Madison, contrary to those “20 square miles surrounded by reality” putdowns, also is a good place to earn a living. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive. High-tech business growth is well documented, and non-technology businesses (if there really is such a thing) have a myriad of choices to leverage technology in their operations, including wireless Internet access. Gov. Jim Doyle wants Wisconsin and Madison to be a biotechnology Mecca.
People say Madison is a “difficult” business climate. People also say California, New York, and Washington D.C. have difficult business climates, yet those areas thrive. When people tell me that Madison and Wisconsin are expensive places to live, I suggest that they move to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
If Madison has such a bad business climate, why are there so many cranes in the skyline?
You can build more than an office here, you can build a career here. You can play professional golf (see Steve Stricker, Jerry Kelly, Andy North, and Sheri Steinhauer), work on state legislation (I have done this), write books (Dave Maranis and Jackie Michard), and develop movie scripts (John Roach).
About the only criticism I take seriously is the lack of direct flights to other cities, but most cities of our size suffer that.
Like many others, I moved here in 1974 to attend graduate school, then went to law school, and met my wife-to-be, who also happens to be from northeastern Wisconsin (Green Bay). It’s sad when you cannot move back to your hometown to earn living, as you can in Madison. You leave your parents, relatives, and friends behind.
There is no reason why we cannot transform northern Wisconsin towns with new-world technologies, or take better advantage of their natural strengths with some innovative thinking. An example is Schneider Transportation in Green Bay. During my undergraduate years at St. Norbert College, Schneider was a large trucking company, but not the dominant market force it is today.
One of its key strategies has been the use of technology in logistics. Schneider focused on using supply chain technology to maximize the use of its trucks. In fact, its technology spin-off went public some years back.
Similarly, each community needs to review its relative strengths and determine how to meet the needs of the new economy. No longer can northern Wisconsin towns rely solely on their natural resources. Their advantages also include cheaper labor and housing.
One example, just one, would be call centers. Companies such as Lands’ End, the Wisconsin-based online retailer, always seem to be opening such centers in smaller communities. Ultratec, a Madison-based text telecommunications company, is locating a call center in urban Milwaukee, and doing its part to address high unemployment among urban young people.
At the end of the day, if Marinette had thought through its competitive advantages, and how technology can be used to leverage them, would all my friends have left?