Eight years ago Gov. Scott Walker entered office with a slightly flawed proposal for a high-speed rail corridor from Chicago to Minneapolis sitting on his desk. He stopped the project — that was a mistake. We now know that “new commerce” needs a low-cost, high-speed, coast-to-coast delivery system for goods and this piece of the puzzle would have put Wisconsin at the top of the list for distribution not to mention new manufacturing and assembly opportunities. Walker could have ensured the rail system was used to help Wisconsin businesses by implementing a few adjustments to the proposal — he did not.
Now Gov.-elect Tony Evers will find a flawed Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. sitting on his desk. He proposes eliminating the entity — that would be a mistake. To compete for jobs and encourage companies to come to Wisconsin we need an organization that can both shepherd them through the process and offer state and local incentives that will help them build, expand and hire new employees while still benefiting the local community and the state. Evers has a real opportunity to change WEDC for the better — he may not.
WEDC needs to change, but eliminating the organization and returning the functions to the even more bureaucratic departments of Commerce and Administration would be a mistake.
First we need to bring an economic development team to the entire state. Today we have independent professionals in most counties and major cities. I propose that these nongovernment employees become a part of a truly independent WEDC. Salaries and benefits would be paid in part by the local communities and in part by WEDC. (A note to Tony: This would be equivalent to the CESA or UW-Extension systems.) These professionals would work locally but would come to Madison regularly to develop strategies and learn all the tools at their disposal.
Next we need to recreate and redistribute the tools. Tax incremental financing laws need to be rewritten to mirror how they are actually used successfully today. We need to remove the politics from new job tax credits and make these credits available to all growing companies that are willing to work with the state and local communities and pay a good wage.
Finally we need to track and facilitate the distribution of thousands of other benefits. From federal Community Development Block Grants and Small Business Administration programs to local development programs, there are funds available that will require a unified effort to track, apply for and administer.
We also need to track and control our efforts. A simple database of every company, incentives received, taxable value on brick and mortar, and number of new employees should be easy to create and maintain. The WEDC sent me a spreadsheet with some of this data and then got upset when I reported that they had given millions to a company that failed to move to Wisconsin. Speaking of failure, we need to tie all of our incentives to measurable objectives. Doing this correctly will not require clawbacks, lawsuits, and vanishing funds. We also need to partner with banks, angel investors, and “Mr. Wonderful of Shark Tank” to bring the expertise they offer to the table. If these entities do not see the value in a proposal, we should take that as a hint that we may not want to invest either.
So here is the challenge to Evers: You can be political and remove a flawed WEDC and return our economic development efforts to the hundreds of disjointed entities currently in place — or you can be a public servant and unify our efforts across the state to actually support the businesses that will provide jobs that will generate the taxes you need to accomplish your greater agenda. Do you build the railroad or derail the train?
Ken Harwood is editor and publisher of the online Wisconsin Development News, where a longer version of this column originally appeared.
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