It took a couple tries to convince Paul Farrow to become a co-chair of the Milwaukee 7. The Waukesha County Economic Development Corp. had shut down not long before he was elected and creating a new entity was a top priority for him.
So when Gale Klappa asked him to take on the M7 role last year, Farrow declined, citing the need to focus on getting what became the Waukesha County Center for Growth off the ground.
But he also questioned whether the M7 was a worthwhile investment for Waukesha County, which contributes $12,500 to the organization each year, and left open the possibility of pursuing other economic development alternatives.
“That was really the question: What does it do for us?” Farrow said, noting even the visual of the group’s co-chairs, leaders of two Milwaukee-based companies and the Milwaukee mayor, made the M7 seem Milwaukee-centric. “The other counties were like, ‘Where’s our voice?’”
Fast forward a year and the Center for Growth has been established and now has leadership from Tim Casey and the Waukesha County Business Alliance.
Farrow said his thinking about M7 has changed over the past year, and he also recognizes he can either criticize from the outside or be involved to make a change. So when Klappa asked him a second time if he would be an M7 co-chair, Farrow was much more receptive.
He still spent more than a month gathering input from officials in other counties before accepting. One of the lessons from those conversations was just how interconnected the seven counties are. At least 10 percent of the workforce in each of the seven counties comes from other M7 counties, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
“That’s what we’ve got to continue to remember, the seven county region is interconnected in so many ways beyond the roads,” Farrow said.
Waukesha County is among the most connected to the other counties, with more than 37 percent of its workers living in one of the other six counties, including more than 25 percent coming from Milwaukee County.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said he was “very pleased” Farrow joined M7 as a co-chair and was happy to have him on the team.
“I think he brings a wealth of experience from Waukesha County and that’s important to what we’re trying to do in Milwaukee 7, which is grow the entire region,” Barrett said.
Just because the counties are interconnected, doesn’t mean Farrow isn’t competitive. He came into office with the goal of making Waukesha County the epicenter for economic growth in the region and said he wants the county to be the No. 1 contributor to the state’s GDP.
“You can be passionate, and I am, about Waukesha County,” he said, noting if Waukesha grows to be the largest portion of state GDP, there will be benefits for the region and if nothing else, the county can push Milwaukee to greater heights.
Barrett said he believes everyone is on the same team and growth in one area can benefit the region as a whole.
“I think we all recognize we are better off having the jobs in southeastern Wisconsin,” he said.
One of the key pieces in achieving Farrow’s goals is the success of the Waukesha County Center for Growth. Since it was established last year, the organization has brought on staff to work with small businesses and on workforce development. Farrow said the center is now beginning to work with banks in the county on establishing a revolving loan fund.
Farrow pointed out all of the counties in the M7 have their own economic development organizations. The county EDOs function like an intranet, he said, working within the county’s borders to help businesses grow and solve their challenges.
M7 should function more like the internet, allowing the sharing of best practices across county lines and bringing the region to the rest of the world.
“All the counties have turnkey properties … I think the biggest issue that we’re still facing is the workforce,” Farrow said, suggesting M7 can take the lead in sending the message to companies outside the region that southeastern Wisconsin has a ready workforce. “We should be able to solve the problem working in collaboration with all these entities.”
Farrow also said there is work M7 can do that goes beyond recruiting new companies to the region, whether it’s communicating information via its website or making certain pieces of data available.
“It’s not always going to be a brand new company,” he said.
He said he’d also like to see more specific yearly numbers from M7, noting information is often presented in cumulative fashion.
“They’re looking at year-to-year growth capability,” Farrow said of local-level EDOs.
Casey said he’s happy to have a voice for Waukesha County at the top of Milwaukee 7, but added he’s had a good working relationship with the organization. In particular he highlighted M7’s work on the expansion of Milwaukee Tool.
Casey said the Center for Growth meets regularly with M7 and Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. staff.
“You always need to be working on communication and collaboration,” he said.