For decades, political and economic thinkers have been talking up the potential virtues of closer connections between Madison and Milwaukee.
The theory is that if Wisconsin looked more like Minnesota, we Badgers might be able to keep pace with the Gophers’ higher level of economic growth and income. The Twin Cities are the hub of business muscle in that state, home to the flagship university and the capitol of state government. This co-location is believed to generate synergy and dynamism in Minnesota’s economy.
Household income is more than $5,000 higher in Minnesota than in Wisconsin, and weather is not the difference maker.
In Wisconsin, there is a major disconnect in the centers of power. Our university flagship and state government are headquartered in Madison. Our business power is based in the Milwaukee 7 region.
The disconnect theory has a ring of credibility, because UW-Madison seldom lends leverage to economic development outside of Dane County, except in the agri-business cluster and in the export of its graduates to the corners of the state.
When the pundits talk about the “IQ Corridor,” they often cite an even broader arc — from Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison and to the Twin Cities: A grand concept indeed, but when it comes to public policy is generally more talk than walk.
There is some organic synergy, like Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. having dual headquarters in Milwaukee and Chicago. Amtrak sees some two-way traffic between Chicago-Milwaukee. Wisconsin companies have offices and customers in the Chicago and Twin Cities markets, and vice versa. But the linkages along the “corridor” — beyond the interstate highways — are far from robust.
Let’s count the ways that political leaders have not walked the talk:
• Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators famously rejected federal funds for high-speed rail between Madison and Milwaukee.
• When UW-Madison created its research park, it put it on the west side of Madison, not closer to Milwaukee on the east side.
• When the flagship university decided to expand its successful research park, it chose the west side again versus a site in between Madison and Milwaukee.
• The big UW foundations seldom invest their resources outside Dane County, even though some of UW-Madison’s biggest benefactors are alums who made it big in Milwaukee. The dollars largely go one way.
• An Intercampus Grants Program between UW–Madison and UW–Milwaukee passed out $1.6 million over three years and then was dropped in 2013. (There has been some initial Madison-Milwaukee collaboration on energy research.)
The latest missed opportunity, one that could still be reversed, is the proposal for a massive new building for a Department of Transportation. Where is it going? To the west side of Madison, where the unemployment rate is close to non-existent.
To walk the synergy talk, why not move the whole department, including the new 600,000 square foot building, to the 30th Street corridor in Milwaukee, where jobs are much in need.
There’s no major reason why that agency has to be in Dane County. Further, the biggest highway projects are always in the state’s business center.
The $200 million structure will also house other agencies that could and should be moved closer to the state’s business hub, such as the Department of Financial Institutions, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the Public Service Commission and the Office of the Insurance Commissioner. Those are all business-oriented agencies.
Splitting the government agencies between Madison and Milwaukee could go a long way to eliminating the disconnect that works against the state’s prosperity. And it could mesh well with Gov. Walker’s plan expressed in his State of the State Address to shake up state agencies through merger of some of them.
But let’s be realistic. Such bold moves are not likely to happen. Job creation in Wisconsin has faded from center stage in the aftermath of the gubernatorial election and in the prelude to a presidential election. The lower unemployment rate, with the exception of the central city of Milwaukee, has also taken the issue off front burner.
Conclusion: The M7 Region will have to do its own heavy lifting on long-term job creation. It can concentrate on co-location within the region, as is happening at UWM’s Innovation Campus and in the fresh water technology cluster.
John Torinus is chairman of Serigraph Inc. in West Bend. He is involved with several business and civic organizations and is the author of “The Company That Solved Health Care.”