Wisconsin communities have a long history of reinvention. More than 30 years ago cities like Madison, Beloit and Milwaukee began an innovative approach to revitalization. The industrial rustbelt that previously dominated, if not defined, Wisconsin’s economy was changing and communities throughout the state needed to change with it.
Today, more and more communities have tackled reinvention, sometimes as a result of individuals or companies with dollars to spend and dreams to realize and sometimes as a result of crisis and community organization.
At the forefront of reinvention, though, is always innovation, a desire for a new identity, and a passion for the community as a whole.
“I think (reinvention) is most often the product of a number of steady concerted efforts and communications that reach a lot of people who should be involved,” said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. “It’s rarely a case of someone proclaiming, ‘We need to rebrand,’ it’s more about making the case in a measured, persistent way over time.”
It’s a conversation that involves various elements, Still said.
“Most often, though, there comes a time in most communities where they have to ask, ‘What does our community look like if we don’t do this?’” he added.
In Beloit, the community’s largest employers either left or significantly downsized, Janesville lost General Motors. Madison lost Oscar Meyer.
Other communities throughout the state suffered losses in the paper industry, and the state as a whole has had to deal with brain drain as Wisconsin graduates and young people leave for ‘greener pastures.’
“Traditions die hard, people are not always convinced that change needs to happen,” Still said. “Luckily for (Wisconsin), there are efforts all over the state that have been successful, and continue to succeed.”
In Eau Claire, Zach Halmstad, co-founder of Jamf, has been instrumental in the city’s reinvention, Still said.
Jamf provides Apple mobile device management software and support to companies all over the world. Last fall, a majority of the company was sold to Austin, Texas-based Vista Equity Partners, but Halmstad and the company remain committed to the city of Eau Claire.
Halmstad, a music and computer science graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, formed Pablo Properties and its philanthropic arm The Pablo Foundation to build Jamf’s downtown Eau Claire office building and the Lismore Hotel, and partner in building the Oxbow Hotel in downtown Eau Claire.
The Pablo Foundation also recently made a $5 million naming rights donation to Eau Claire’s Confluence Art Center Project, the flagship project of Eau Claire’s downtown revitalization.
“He’s been instrumental in developing Eau Claire’s downtown into a place where today’s generation of workers wants to be,” Still said. “He’s giving back to his hometown, but also helping make Eau Claire a destination spot for talent in Wisconsin.”
In La Crosse, Don Weber, chief executive officer and founder of Logistics Health Inc., and his family have invested more than $220 million in that city’s downtown, including several mixed-used development properties, restaurants, hotels, apartment buildings and the Weber Center for the Performing Arts.
Similar efforts, according to Still, have been realized or are underway in Madison with people like Jerry Frautschi, Pleasant Rowland, and Epic Systems’ Judith Faulkner; in Beloit with Diane Hendricks and organizations like Beloit 2020; in Janesville; and in the Fox Cities.
“In many cases, it starts with business leaders,” Still said. “But it’s also a matter of communicating with all stakeholders: government, public, schools and other educational institutions, development professionals, and community leaders. Nobody can bury their heads in the sand. If there’s an issue, communities need to come together and begin that slow, steady process of building consensus on what the future could and should look like.”
Industries falter and leave, but innovation drives change, and Wisconsinites throughout the state have and will continue to embrace it.