Cool cities are hot cities: Smaller communities can compete for talent

Cool cities are hot cities: Smaller communities can compete for talent

ELKHART LAKE – Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna is direct when he’s asked why Appleton and its neighbors collaborated with private supporters to build the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in the early 2000s.

“It was done primarily to attract talent,” Hanna told a League of Wisconsin Municipalities meeting Thursday in Elkhart Lake.

Hanna doesn’t mean just theatrical or musical talent. He means the kind of talent needed by the region’s employers to compete and thrive in a modern economy.

How Wisconsin responds to one of the most serious demographic challenges in its history is vital to the state’s economy, which must add or replace 1 million workers in the next 10 years as the current workforce ages and businesses of all types seek to grow or, in some cases, simply survive.

Although Wisconsin’s population continues to expand, its civilian workforce is flattening out and may even decline by 2035, according to state Department of Workforce Development estimates. In part, that’s because the state’s population is aging, but Wisconsin must also do a better job of attracting and retaining young workers – primarily those in their 20s and 30s.

Failure to address both the “brain drain” (out-migration) and the “brain gain” (in-migration) issues will pose major problems for Wisconsin as it struggles to compete in the 21st century Innovation Economy.

How can municipalities become a part of the solution? That was the topic of my talk to about 100 city and village leaders at the League’s chief executives workshop, where the focus was innovation in Wisconsin communities.

Cool cities are hot cities when it comes to company and job creation. While many people think that largely a big-city phenomenon, with places like California’s Silicon Valley leading the way, it has increasingly become true for mid-sized and even small cities.

Wisconsin is a state of mid-sized cities. Only Milwaukee and Madison rank among the nation’s 100 largest cities, but Wisconsin boasts a dozen cities with 50,000 or more people and many more that are large enough to stand out as economic magnets in their counties or regions.

Appleton is a prime example. This Fox Valley city of about 75,000 was pretty much a traditional paper mill town for decades, but it has transformed itself in ways designed to attract and retain younger people. The Performing Arts Center in Appleton’s downtown is an obvious symbol, but the effort extends to a nationally renowned trail system for walking and biking, a signature music festival, “maker spaces” for entrepreneurs, the state’s busiest library system and an ever-growing farmers’ market.

“The world is changing. The economic development paradigm is changing,” Hanna said. “And as elected officials, we have the tough job of telling our citizens how the world is changing.”

Most often, Hanna said, that means cities need to refrain from being bureaucrats and naysayers and focus on being facilitators and partners. “Our role is often to get out of the way and let it happen,” he said.

Whether it’s Appleton, other Wisconsin cities or communities well beyond our borders, there are some common themes when it comes to competing for talent and economic activity. Partnerships are key. Those include partnerships with higher education (the University of Wisconsin System, private colleges and technical colleges) and K-12 schools. Partnerships must also include private businesses and regional alliances and may also extend to unlikely sources, such as a Richland Center project led by the faith community there.

The cost of doing business must be competitive, of course, and core business services must be in place. For many millennials, however, quality of life is key.

That’s been part of the formula in other Midwestern cities that have turned the corner in recent years, according to various economic measures. Examples close to home include Ames, Iowa; Fargo and Bismarck, N.D.; Sioux Falls and Rapid City, S.D.; Bloomington, Ind.; and Bloomington-Normal, Ill.

Why are cities of all sizes important? In 47 of 50 states, including Wisconsin, they generate the majority of all economic output. In Wisconsin, cities of 50,000 or more account for 73 percent of the state’s jobs.

Those cities must become magnets for talent in order for Wisconsin to compete. While the state loses some of its homegrown talent to other states, studies show an even bigger problem may be its failure to attract people from elsewhere.

“Cool” cities of all sizes can help with that challenge – not only in bringing home those who left Wisconsin, but in appealing to people elsewhere. It’s not just about brats and cheese in the emerging battle for talent, but computer bytes and culture.

Recent articles by Tom Still

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.