Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon tells the story of the California high-tech company that was contemplating moving its operations to Texas.
It was seeking incentives from the state for the move and was favoring Austin, the state capital and university town that has been an economic star for years.
But then Gov. Rick Perry suggested that the firm think about locating in Dallas or Houston or one of several other Texas cities. Too much liberal politics in Austin, the Republican governor remarked. It would be much better to locate in a community that was a bit more conservative, like Perry himself.
According to Brandon, that was enough for the company to declare "no thanks" — it would stay put in California. Texas obviously didn't have its act together if the state of politics in any given locale was relevant in trying to attract businesses to the state.
Frankly, that's the way too many politicians in Wisconsin these days treat Madison. While the city is in the midst of an economic boom compared to the sluggish growth of the rest of the state, there is still a tendency to demonize Wisconsin's capital city for its liberal politics.
Scott Walker, in particular, has succeeded in creating a perception among many outside of Madison that Madison is successful only because it's the capital with all its "coddled" state workers and home to the main campus of the University of Wisconsin. Its economy flourishes because the rest of the state's "hardworking" residents send their tax dollars to those liberals in the capital city. It's been a classic example of Walker's ability to "divide and conquer," a concept he bragged about to one of his billionaire out-of-Madison benefactors, Diane Hendricks of Janesville's ABC Supply Co.
But that strategy obviously hasn't done much to attract new business to other parts of the state. Rather, most of Wisconsin's economic growth during Walker's regime has taken place in demonized Madison and Dane County — in fact, about 73 percent of the new job growth in the state.
Brandon and the Madison chamber hope to change all that. They've embarked on an initiative that paints a more accurate picture of Wisconsin's capital city, its impact on the rest of the state, and the need for everyone to work together to improve job growth and economic progress for all of the state.
Until last year Madison had never held a "legislative day" like so many other Wisconsin cities, Brandon pointed out. While Superior takes a day to bring its business and civic leaders to "schmooze" with legislators as do Sheboygan, Wausau and others, Madison stood on the sidelines. But that changed last year and will continue in the future.
That Madison and Dane County benefit from being home to the Capitol and the UW-Madison is true, but the economic growth it has been experiencing the past several years hasn't come from the UW or state government. It has come from many private companies that have located and grown here in four big sectors — biotech, information technology, business and finance, and knowledge creation.
And Dane County has been much more than Epic, the phenomenally successful Verona health IT firm, Brandon points out. Epic accounts for roughly 27 percent of the recent growth; the rest is from new start-ups and expansion by existing companies.
So it's time to stop beating up on Madison, the chamber president says. The city is an example of how Wisconsin's economy can grow, and instead of portraying the city as a leech on the rest of the state, there's an opportunity to learn from each other.
That might be harder than it should be, but give the chamber credit for giving it a try.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel
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