All of those naysayers who believe Wisconsin is a terrible place to do business need to take a deep breath and do some serious recalibrating.
To be sure, like every other state, Wisconsin has its share of challenges – its high taxes and the dropout rate at Milwaukee Public Schools always quickly come to mind. And no doubt, Wisconsin has taken it on the chin with the closures of automotive plants in Janesville and Kenosha.
The losses have made the Milwaukee 7 a convenient target for people who make a habit out of trashing Wisconsin’s business climate.
However, the negative drumbeat news cycle needs to take a break sometimes, and Tuesday was one of those days.
BizTimes had known for weeks that Milwaukee is one of two cities to be finalists in a Spanish company’s search to build its new North American headquarters. We were told by city officials that we should not report that fact, however, because doing so could jeopardize Milwaukee’s chances of landing the project.
Well, Wisconsin Secretary of Commerce Richard Leinenkugel blew those concerns out of the water Tuesday when he reported by phone from Bilbao, Spain, at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) all-member meeting that he had just concluded a "12-hour cage match" presentation to a Spanish company.
Leinenkugel is courting the Spanish firm with a southeastern Wisconsin delegation that includes officials from the Milwaukee 7, We Energies and Richard "Rocky" Marcoux, commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of City Development.
Milwaukee is "at the finish line" of landing the company’s North American headquarters that would bring hundreds of jobs to southeastern Wisconsin and could also generate more work for vendors in the region, sources said.
"It’s between us and one other city," said one source close to the negotiations.
Officials representing the Spanish company have been studying the business climate in southeastern Wisconsin for weeks, BizTimes has learned. The company sent representatives to the MMAC’s Future 50 program in September, and they toured several southeastern Wisconsin factories, including the GenMet metal fabrication plant in Mequon. The plant tours were designed to give the Spanish company some insight about the array of potential partners and vendors in the region, sources said.
Sources said they expect the Spanish company to make a decision on the site for the North American headquarters by the end of the year.
Sources declined to identify the Spanish company that is being courted by Milwaukee.
We’ve got a pretty good hunch, however. Think alternative energy. Spain has become the world’s second-largest producer of solar and wind energy in the world (behind Germany).
Spanish companies such as Gamesa, a manufacturer and installer of wind turbines, Iberdrola, a power group, and Acciona Energia, a wind park developer, are becoming global players in the fast-emerging alternative energy markets.
Republic Airways jobs
The news that Milwaukee is a finalist for the Spanish company’s jobs came on the heels of Republic Airways Holdings Inc.’s announcement earlier Tuesday that it will save 800 jobs in Oak Creek and move 800 new jobs to the region by the end of next year.
Republic, the new parent company of Midwest Airlines, plans to move the jobs to Oak Creek and Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport.
Republic chief executive officer Bryan Bedford confirmed the creation of a Milwaukee hub during the MMAC’s meeting at the Bradley Center.
Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle announced the use of the state’s Enterprise Zone tax credits to help convince Republic to bring the jobs to the state.
Indianapolis-based Republic Airways will consolidate operations in Milwaukee from other cities such as Las Cruces, N.M., and Denver, Colo.
Republic acquired Denver-based Frontier Airlines on Oct. 1.
Bedford praised Milwaukee’s pro-business climate as a reason for deciding to bring the jobs here, rather than Indianapolis or Denver.
"We spent a lot of time in the last three months trying to figure out where we can be our best and most competitive," Bedford said.
Bedford also announced Republic will add new routes from Milwaukee to San Francisco and Raleigh, N.C. The company is considering adding service to six more routes.
"Midwest Airlines today is about 45 percent to 50 percent of what it was at its peak. Our goal is to get back to its peak as soon as possible," Bedford said.
Mercury Marine jobs
Step back for a moment and recall that Wisconsin also recently beat out Oklahoma to keep Mercury Marine’s production plant in Fond du Lac. Wisconsin provided about $70 million in public assistance, along with about $50 million in a loan backed by a Fond du Lac County sales tax and $3 million from the city of Fond du Lac. With the combined package of incentives, Mercury Marine plans to move up to 2,700 jobs to the Fox Valley.
In addition to the wins with Mercury Marine and Republic Airways, eight biotechnology companies have recently moved from other states to Wisconsin.
Biotechnology in Wisconsin is an $8.7 billion industry with 400 companies and 34,000 employees. Biotechnology is the fastest-growing segment of the Wisconsin economy, with an annualized growth rate of nearly 7 percent.
The state is benefiting from the formation of the Wisconsin Angel Network and the Wisconsin Venture Fund to help facilitate deal flow, investor exchanges and network creation.
In February, Doyle expanded the investor tax credit law as part of an early economic recovery bill. Enhancements included: raising the cap on tax credits for angel investments from $1 million to $4 million; tripling the annual pool of credits available for angel credits, from $5.5 million to $18.25 million per year, and venture credits, $6 million to $18.75 million; and allowing angel investors to claim the entire 25 percent credit on their investment in the first taxable year.
The eight biotech companies moving to Wisconsin are: RJA Dispersions LLC; VitalMedix; Rapid Diagnostek; Aldevron; Flex Biomedical Inc.; Inviragen Inc.; Exact Sciences Corp.; and NanoMedex.
They’re moving here from Minnesota, North Dakota, Massachusetts and Florida.
Those relocations recently prompted the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis to write a series (and a related blog item headlined, "Wisconsin kicks our butt") about how Minnesota is losing out to a better business climate in Wisconsin.
Jobs from the Flatlands
Meanwhile, Uline Inc. of Waukegan, Ill., will move across the Wisconsin border to its new headquarters in Pleasant Prairie in 2010, bringing 1,000 jobs to a state that is supposedly a terrible place to do business. Uline is investing about $100 million in this God-awful place.
Uline received more than $6 million in incentives and aid from the State of Wisconsin to come here. In addition to Uline, several other Chicago area-based firms recently have opted to build facilities in Kenosha County instead of northern Illinois, including Vernon Hills-based Rust-Oleum Corp. and Lake Forest Village-based Hospira Inc.
And guess what? Business advocates in northern Illinois are now screaming because Wisconsin is luring away so many of their businesses. At a meeting of the Lake County Chamber of Commerce in Independence Grove, Lake County Partners president Dave Young blamed Illinois’ "unfriendly business climate" for the flight of businesses TO Wisconsin.
"We have a governor (in Illinois) who goes out of his way to antagonize the business community," Young said at the luncheon, according to the Lake County News-Sun. "Unfortunately, right next door in Kenosha County, Gov. Jim Doyle is very adept at business recruitment and actually enjoys it."
Oh, and there will be more good news. Look for the efforts of the Water Council and Badger Meter Inc. CEO Rich Meeusen to pay off with more freshwater technology jobs in the next couple of years.
Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.