If Madison is complacent about economic growth as Paul Fanlund and others concluded in these pages on May 9, the city is hardly alone among its peers. My research for “The Third Lifetime Place: A New Opportunity for College Towns” suggests that this tendency is common in college towns nationwide.

But the substandard new growth that disturbs Fanlund may not be the only economic peril. Another is the potential gradual withering of what the city already has: the economic payoff from a 40,000-student university.

In mid-May, UW-Madison turned a new crop of graduates, many with heavy student loan debts, out into a newly but permanently difficult global economy. It’s an economy with a glut of other graduates, many in parts of the world where the college-educated earn much less. And it’s a world of computer automation that is cutting the number of graduates needed to do many jobs.

As a result, “Is it worth it?” is all over the media. It is likely that more high school graduates are going to decide it’s not. And distance learning, three-year on-campus degree programs, and other innovations promise to cut the high cost of college for the rest.

Madison, of course, also benefits from other economic activity. But the city’s landlords, restaurateurs, retailers and others including the tax collectors are sure to feel the impact both of fewer students and students spending less time on campus that these changes may bring.

This city does the college town thing better than most. It offers a rich experience that can, if well marketed, be attractive not just to students but also to visitors, vacationers, conference-goers, retirees, working families and others. Madison can, in short, become a more economically diverse Univer-City, especially if it better capitalizes on the emotional equity of its being a Third Lifetime Place in the lives of its thousands of Badger alumni.

The TLP is a location separate from the current place of residence and childhood hometown that has comparable familiarity and emotional significance. The dominant TLP in the past was the regular vacation destination. For many that was Florida. The Sunshine State later became a choice for conventions, business locations, and especially retirement and a national growth leader.

But for many of the heavily college-educated baby boomers and later generations, the college town may have been a more significant TLP than the vacationland. The college years were among the most fondly remembered times in many of our lives. And the imminent retirement of the boomers represents a massive economic opportunity.

Few cities of its size can offer as much as Madison in informal learning, entertainment, urban charm, culture, green living, or water-based anything. “Best cities” rankings notwithstanding, the place is still a well-kept secret.

Well-kept secrets don’t make as much money. So turning alumni memories into nonacademic jobs and tax revenues will mean developing and marketing Madison as more than just a place to get a diploma or tour the Capitol.

But “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the economic development rule in many college towns. If the rule is applied to Madison, more desirable growth potential than in most places stands to be squandered.

John L. Gann Jr. is president of Gann Associates and consults and writes on economic development marketing. A graduate of UW-Madison’s urban and regional planning program, he is the author of “The Third Lifetime Place: A New Economic Opportunity for College Towns.” He divides his time between Madison and the Chicago area. citykid@uwalumni.com

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