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The Madison area is in a lot better shape economically than most other metropolitan areas of the U.S., but to propel the region into a top-echelon position it will take a lot more collaboration, education, investment and promotion, according to a new study.

That could include forming entrepreneurial partnerships with groups as far away as Ann Arbor, Michigan or Pittsburgh, creating a food distribution center that would serve several states, or becoming a hub for industrial hemp.

One of the most important steps will be to find a way to make broadband available to everyone in the region, the study says.

The Madison area has the most diverse economy in the nation and is among leaders in the growth of technology jobs but it is far behind “top U.S. investment hubs such as Austin, Texas, Raleigh, North Carolina, or Portland, Oregon,” according to Advance Now 2.0.

“When we compare ourselves to the rest of the country, we look awfully good. When we compare ourselves to the cream of the crop, we still have a long ways to go,” said Paul Jadin, president of the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP).

Advance Now 2.0 is a 149-page consultant report prepared in collaboration with MadREP, detailing what the Madison region should do to bolster economic development over the next five years.

MadREP presented a synopsis of Advance Now 2.0 to nearly 150 community and business leaders at the Edgewater Hotel on Thursday.

The report, conducted by Market Street Services, an Atlanta business consulting firm, updates the first Advance Now plan, presented in 2012, and many of its recommendations are similar: Develop a brand identity for the Madison region — identified as Dane, Columbia, Dodge, Jefferson, Rock and Sauk counties — and promote it; educate and train more students for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers; promote a more diverse workforce; and create more centers of excellence.

As a companion to Advance Now 2.0 is a series of in-depth analyses conducted by MadREP and UW-Madison Extension over the past several years that explores each of the sectors determined to be the area’s main employment clusters: information and communication technology; bioscience; health care; agriculture, food and beverages; and advanced manufacturing.

In all, the reports comprise 900 pages of data and strategy, Jadin said.

They show the Madison region is strong in the technology, biotechnology and health-related industries.

Health care jobs rose 18.4% between 2006 and 2017 to 68,545 employees; bioscience employment increased 25% to 12,245 positions; and tech jobs soared 105% over that period to 25,060 jobs.

But advanced manufacturing employment fell, as companies such as Oscar Mayer closed its Madison operations, and agriculture jobs slid.

“We’ve lost 15.8% of our farms,” said Michael Gay, MadREP senior vice president of economic development. “Last year, we lost two farms a day.”

The Madison region has one of the lowest unemployment rates among peer cities but that means the area doesn’t have a lot of available workers, Jadin said. The Advance Now 2.0 report also showed the advantage the area once held for its relatively low cost of living is slipping as housing costs increase.

The lack of high-speed internet in surrounding counties and even in some pockets of Dane County is “one of our most significant concerns,” Jadin said. “It’s getting to the point where when you’re talking about the economy, it’s oxygen.”

There are more sites ready for immediate development than elsewhere in the state but more are needed, Jadin said.

Support for new businesses also has blossomed.

The Madison area has 58 innovative spaces, such as business incubators, accelerators and maker spaces, and more than 130 technology companies were launched, both in 2016 and 2017.

“Startups are absolutely critical to the area,” Jadin said.

Recommendations of Advance Now 2.0 and the sector evaluations also include:

  • Create a regional planning commission to collaborate on housing and transportation.
  • Establish a distribution center for a variety of wholesale and retail food products that would serve a multi-state region.
  • Prepare to support industrial hemp production.
  • Create centers of excellence for game and mobile app development, e-commerce, cybersecurity and the internet of things.
  • Forge entrepreneurial connections with Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and perhaps as far as Ann Arbor, Columbus, Ohio, Pittsburgh and Waterloo, Ontario.

“We have a lot of work to do. We can’t take the economy here for granted and hope everything gets done organically,” Jadin said.

“We want to be that new economy, the high-tech economy, the vibrant place where there are significant experiences for young people,” he said. “We want to be that destination where people in Poughkeepsie are saying, ‘I want to get to Madison when I get out of school.’”

The reports also will be among the topics featured Friday at the daylong Madison Region Economic Development & Diversity Summit, from 4 to 8 p.m., at Monona Terrace.

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