One of the challenges businesses face when seeking business development assistance is that they often don’t know what resources are available outside of traditional financing or consulting services they may receive from their lenders, accountants or law firms. They may also view state or other public assistance as ineffective or coming with too many strings attached. However, once businesses realize the many forms and sources of financial and technical assistance available, a whole new world of opportunity opens up.
“It isn’t always clear to businesses where they can turn for help,” explains Brenda Hicks-Sorensen, vice president of economic and community development for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). As the state’s lead economic development organization, WEDC works with partner organizations throughout the state to ensure that when a business is looking to start, expand or relocate operations in Wisconsin all of the state’s resources are put on the table. “We understand that there are organizations on the ground that are often closer to the businesses in their communities than we are,” says Hicks-Sorensen. “For that reason, we coordinate our efforts with the state’s many stakeholders who share our interest in creating and sustaining a vibrant economy.”
These stakeholders include local and county government; planning commissions; chambers of commerce; educational institutions; industry and trade groups; and local and regional economic development organizations.
WEDC’s role in providing direct funding—through loans, tax credits, or grants—to businesses to help retain or create jobs in Wisconsin is generally understood. But where the public-private entity makes the greatest impact on Wisconsin’s economy is through its less visible investments in partner organizations and special projects.
Through investments in organizations with specialized capabilities and a proven track record of success, WEDC maximizes the impact of its economic development funds. “We use the word ‘leverage’ a lot at WEDC,” says Hicks Sorensen. “It’s one of our primary metrics.”
WEDC’s relationship with the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC) is a good example of how an investment of state funds in an extremely capable and focused partner organization ends up creating opportunities for businesses WEDC would otherwise not reach. WWBIC offers loans to small businesses throughout the state and provides valuable technical services ranging from one-on-one business counseling to formal classes. WWBIC is required to match WEDC’s investment with outside funds at a ratio of at least 2:1. “Matching WEDC’s investment at a rate of 13:1, WWBIC was able to help more than 2,880 Wisconsin business owners achieve their goals in the first 11 months of 2012. These businesses in turn created or retained more than 1,100 jobs in 2012,” reports WWBIC President Wendy Baumann.
WEDC also funds special projects where trade groups with specific skill sets apply their expertise to challenges facing Wisconsin businesses. Such is the case with the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP) Profitable Sustainability Initiative (PSI). According to WMEP, in the first two phases of the program, 98 small and midsized manufacturers received training on sustainable practices designed to save money and improve competitiveness. The three-year economic impact of this work is projected to be more than $150 million in savings and increased sales among the participating companies—this in addition to immediate and long-term environmental benefits. Building on this success, WMEP recently announced an expansion of the program to include an additional
In addition, WEDC’s Division of Business and Industry Development promotes economic activity in Wisconsin by supporting vital “driver industries” in the state. Driver industries are those that hold the greatest promise for future growth. Milwaukee’s International Water Technology Center scheduled for completion in summer 2013 is a good example of how WEDC works with a well-organized industry group—in this case the Water Council—to improve Wisconsin’s economic standing. WEDC is providing a grant to underwrite the rent for new startup tenants in the sevenstory, 98,000-square-foot building, which will provide occupants access to a specialized water flow laboratory. This facility and the presence of researchers from the world’s only graduate-level fresh water sciences program will streamline the testing of new water technology products, solidifying Wisconsin’s status as a world leader in water technology advancements. With the state government and its partner economic development agencies working together with educational institutions and industry leaders, Wisconsin is applying the necessary resources to create a world-class economy.