How do businesses decide where they will locate? Economic development can be very competitive. Part of my job is to try to retain and grow our existing businesses, as well as bringing new businesses into the county. Prospective businesses have an understanding of what their companies need and want in a new location. One challenge that we face, and this is something that I first noticed in 1997, is that state officials do not often recommend our county and region as an area for businesses to locate. Occasionally, the State of Wisconsin’s agencies are contacted by a prospective business that wants to find suitable locations to develop a new business. Politics may play into these decisions or recommendations.
Back in 1997, when I worked for the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, a prospect was looking for suitable locations in Wisconsin. I saw what the business needed for infrastructure and land as well as what the business wanted for other amenities and labor force. After reviewing the information and talking to the company’s executives, I asked the business exec why they were not considering a location in southwest Wisconsin. They stated that they had not been presented any locations in this region. They were only being presented sites around the Madison region. In this case, the southwest region made a lot more sense for this Fortune 500 company because of the type of manufacturing and the workforce pay scale. Simply put, it would have been a high paying manufacturer in the SW region but in the Madison region, it would have been a challenge to get workers. This point was discussed by the Dept. of Commerce executives. When I asked the Division Administrator why southwest Wisconsin was not being presented to this business, the answer given to me was “You don’t put a trophy in a broom closet”. That was an eye-opening experience for me. However, it was not an isolated one. It was also not one that I can assign to any political party. I have experienced this with every state administration since.
The common theme is that they want projects to locate in “Milwaukee, Madison, and the Fox Valley”. I have heard this quote, as I am sometimes being told to “plug my ears”. Fortunately, my relationships with the various governors’ cabinet people are solid and they are honest with me. I am not surprised by these comments. It’s about the votes, getting reelected, and putting projects into urban population areas. My mission with this article is not to complain about this practice, but rather to educate my peers and to demonstrate why economic development is needed.
Economic development is needed to fight and compete. We market to the world. It is part of my job to let the world know about our county, our communities, our schools, and our workforce. The great thing about now, is that the Internet has leveled the field for us. 99% of all prospective businesses are using the Internet for their research on where to set up their businesses. Twenty-plus years ago, businesses relied more on agencies. Our challenge is to be sure we have our information available on the Internet for these prospects to find and review. If we do that, then we are competitive.