Archive for the ‘Development’ category

Wisconsin’s “Left Behinds” Are Ignored

October 14, 2017

The Badger State’s celebrated comeback from the Great Recession has been incomplete. I argue in the first of a two-part series in Isthmus that rural Wisconsin and inner-city Milwaukee remain mired in economic and social pain:

Call it “the two Wisconsins,” as the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance presciently did in 2006 when the nonpartisan budget group documented Wisconsin’s split reality even before the Great Recession soundly fractured the state economy into winners and left-behinds.

Today, while Dane County booms and the bigger cities in the Fox River Valley and western Wisconsin prosper, the rest of the state is largely mired in a downturn that is a recession in all but name.

Wisconsin is not alone. This dichotomy is also America’s story, as the Economic Innovation Group, a centrist research group in Washington, D.C., first documented in May 2016. The EIG study — widely ignored and fraught with political implications, as pundit Harold Meyerson has argued — detailed how painfully limited the economic recovery from the Great Recession (the magnitude of job destruction earned its adjective) was compared to post-recession periods in the early 1990s and early 2000s.

“The 1990s recovery was powered by small counties, small cities, rural areas. It was very much a grassroots recovery where the entire U.S. landscape experienced a blossoming of enterprise,” says Kenan Fikri, EIG’s research and policy manager.

The early 2010s’ recovery was brutally asymmetrical. By the time the U.S. economy pulled out of the recession, the split was extreme between America’s prosperous and left-behind counties.

So it is in Wisconsin. My story tries to define the problem and suggests that our political leaders have yet to come to grips with it. You can read more here.

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Time For Madison To Think Big

October 26, 2016

I’ve written  about development in the Madison area since Pluto was a pup. Lots of stories on land-use plans, on the convention center battles, even the siting of the  MATC main campus. Stuff so old you can’t even find them in an online archives.

Those stories provide the background for me arguing in this Isthmus cover story that Madison needs a comprehensive recreational and economic plan for improving access to Lake Monona along John Nolen Drive all the way  from the Blair Street intersection and  Law Park to the South Beltline.

I write:

Today’s tech-fired boom in Dane County, which owes so much to [Judith] Faulkner’s Epic Systems’ breakout business in electronic health records, is the sort of transformative moment that comes once a century for a community. The overriding question: Can Madison make the best of it, including capitalizing on the intersection of Lake Monona with the city?

Not just downtown either [by building a terraced park over John Nolen Drive]. But reimagining a 21st-century John Nolen Drive all the way up to Quann, Olin and Turville parks to the Alliant Energy Center to the South Beltline and to the overlooked neighborhoods of south Madison.

“This is the next big piece,” says Rob Gottschalk, a planner with Vandewalle and Associates who has studied the John Nolen corridor. “The central city has grown and matured to the point we can now start focusing on the corridor.”

Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, gets it. So does Dane County Board chair Sharon Corrigan, her colleague and south-side Supv. Sheila Stubbs, County Clerk Scott McDonell, as well as business leader Susan Schmitz of Downtown Madison Inc.

“It’s a game-changer,” Schmitz says of the recent waterfront connection proposed for Law Park by the Madison Design Professionals Workgroup. “Improved access is on everybody’s list for the downtown.”

Like Gottschalk, Brandon, who served on the advisory board for the Vandewalle study, argues for a comprehensive game plan for the full corridor, including the Alliant Energy Center. “There is tremendous opportunity to create connectivity and economic development,” he says.

Indeed, a forward-thinking strategy for the county-owned 165-acre Alliant campus should be a key community challenge, as he, Corrigan, McDonell and Stubbs all argue. Surrounded by parks and the Goodman Aquatic Center, Alliant is the linchpin of 400 publicly controlled acres in a fragmented and sometimes impoverished part of town.

Pulling it all together in a comprehensive plan could simultaneously enhance lake access and recreational opportunities at Olin and Turville parks, strengthen Dane County’s convention and exhibition business at the Alliant complex and further economic growth along the South Beltline and in struggling south Madison.

All of these goals — celebrating the lakes, creating jobs, fighting poverty — rank high on just about everyone’s list of community goals, Brandon points out.

I freely admit this is an ambitious undertaking that would take decades to achieve. But the planning has to take place now. That’s the rub. Otherwise shortsighted, piecemeal development will go up “and then you’re stuck with it for the next 40 or 50 years,” as Gottschalk told me.

In other words, a great opportunity will be lost.

To read more, please go here.

Stronger UWM=Stronger Wisconsin

July 11, 2016

Sometimes one story leads to another. My Isthmus piece on the critical role of the UW System in rebuilding the Wisconsin economy got me thinking about the importance of urban universities in anchoring  prosperous metropolitan regions.

I make the case in this Journal Sentinel opinion column that a bigger state  investment in UW-Milwaukee would be a key ingredient in revitalizing Milwaukee.

A strong Milwaukee is good for us all — Madison, the Milwaukee suburbs and the state as a whole. “You can’t move the state forward economically unless Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin are leading the pack,” as former commerce secretary Bill McCoshen puts it.

Indeed, most prosperous metro regions — the Austins and Seattles of the nation — are usually enriched by strong central cities, research shows. The weakest — the Clevelands and Milwaukees — are hobbled by weak central cities.

Look no farther than Minnesota, which has soared ahead of the Badger state. Our median income of $52,622 a year is almost $9,000 less than our sister state’s. The contrasting impact of Minnapolis-St.Paul’s muscular economy to Milwaukee’s lingering Rust Belt decline is the key reason for the prosperity gap.

 

To read more on the history and important role of urban universities, please go here.

What Would Tommy do?

April 19, 2016

Last fall I had lunch with a friend who covered Wisconsin’s Capitol when Tommy Thompson ran the state for 14 years. By the end, he said, Thompson had tired of the constant grind. Only when Thompson talked about his plans for the UW System did the old fire return
That stuck with me. A few years earlier I wrote a Capitol piece for Milwaukee Magazine that discussed the politically surprising partnership between the Republican governor and  liberal-minded UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala in launching a huge and transformative building program for the university.
Times have changed. Today the Capitol and the university see one another as an unreliable partner. I write:

The disharmony stems in part from the tensions of a generally liberal-minded university working with a decidedly conservative state government. Further exacerbating the relationship is the obliqueness of UW System bookkeeping and the Republican belief it hid a huge slush fund. (This became a key factor in the GOP-enforced tuition freeze and UW budget cut.) Add in the troubling geographic complaints that the UW System is Madison-centric and shorts the rest of the state and Milwaukee in particular.

UW advocates, in turn, are reeling from the $250 million UW budget cut, the four-year tuition freeze, the stripping of tenure protection from state statutes and Gov. Scott Walker’s surprise attempt in an earlier budget to bowdlerize the “Wisconsin Idea” that guides the UW’s mission to the citizenry.

All this makes for an unpleasant stew of missed signals, aggravation, suspicion and wheel spinning. Not to mention a nagging sense that the state as a whole is grievously hurt by the failure of the pols and profs to make nice.

Once upon a time it was different. Governors, Democrat and Republican alike, would tap top UW talent to serve and help run their administrations. Over the past 40-plus years this included Govs. Patrick Lucey, Lee Dreyfus, Tony Earl and Tommy Thompson deploying such UW luminaries as David Adamany, Walter Dickey, Ralph Andreano, Charles Cicchetti, Steve Born, Kenneth Lindner and Donald Percy in government service.

But under Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and now Scott Walker, a Republican, a new dynamic has emerged — governors ignoring the UW’s best and brightest to rely almost exclusively on their loyalists and apparatchiks to set policy and run the huge army of state employees.

More than one UW person I talked to spoke approvingly (if not longingly) of the Tommy Thompson era. That’s when an activist Republican governor with Hamiltonian ambitions for a greater Wisconsin found common ground with the university to unleash a major expansion of the UW System, including several billion dollars in campus construction.

How did he do it?

“I realized the university had to be my ally,” Thompson, 74, explains matter-of-factly, as if he were addressing a Poli Sci 101 class. “I had to make the university much more responsive to the needs of Wisconsin. And I said to myself I have to do it in a collegial way, because I don’t have the political power to do it alone. I’ve got to make sure the university understands I’m going to be its best friend. And for that friendship — quid pro quo — they’re going to help me build every part of this state.”

You don’t hear talk like that anymore in Wisconsin. An obvious question calls out: What would Tommy do to improve the sad state of campus-Capitol relations?

To find the answer, please go here.

There are two sidebars with the story. (The whole package is about 5,000 words.) The first reports how Thompson, a life-long UW booster, will be honored at UW-Madison’s spring commencement. The second details how the state’s failing efforts at economic development ignore the recommendations of UW researchers.

 

Abandoned Mine Ahead

November 30, 2015

A few weeks ago, The Financial Times reported that  the price of steel rebar (the reinforcing rods used in concrete construction) had plunged to a record low on the Shanghai futures market. And the price of iron ore had dropped as well, meaning that mining companies would likely cut production.

That was bad news for the Wisconsin economy. The Badger State has a substantial — but struggling — mining equipment industry in the Milwaukee area.

More to the point, the cooling of the Chinese economy is a major reason why the pipe dream of a revived iron ore mining in northern Wisconsin quickly burst. I examine the flawed thinking of the mine promoters  — notably Gov. Scott Walker and the business group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce–in a piece for Isthmus.

 

Thomas Power, 75, an emeritus natural resources economist at the University of Montana, has studied mining for almost 50 years. He chuckled and said “certainly not” when I asked him in a phone interview if mining iron ore in northern Wisconsin was a good bet for producing jobs and wealth.

“Mining in the United States hasn’t been a growth center or a source of regional prosperity for at least a half century,” he says. “Just look across the country. When was the last time the Iron Range in Minnesota was prosperous? Or the last time when Butte, Montana, was prosperous? Or the Appalachian coal fields? Or the Ozark lead fields? Or the Arizona copper towns?”

The only contemporary success story he could cite was gold mining in the middle of nowhere Nevada, where the workers commute to work.

Reality is that mining operates on a recurring boom-and-bust cycle, he notes, and the bounce-backs are inevitably fueled, in part, by technological advances that reduce the workforce.

Mining jobs, as a result, has been greatly reduced. “It’s like agriculture,” Power says. “The rural Great Plains is losing people. Its not because we’re producing less and less wheat. It’s because we need almost no people to produce the wheat. It’s the same with mining.”

“It’s hard to imagine how some sort of sustainable prosperity can be built around an industry of that sort,” he adds. “That’s not badmouthing mining. That’s just the facts of the matter.”

To read more, please go here.

UW Tech Transfer: Challenge and Promise

October 15, 2015

Few things are as important for energizing the listless Wisconsin economy than capitalizing on the great research conducted at UW-Madison. I write in this Isthmus cover story:

A game-changer is what UW-Madison sorely needs. Historically one of the nation’s leading research schools, the campus secures more than $1 billion a year in research grants. Yet between 2009 and 2014, Wisconsin ranked 42nd among the states in patents issued, according to federal data. And we were dead last in a survey of entrepreneurial activity taken by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Reality is that despite Dane County’s tech-led boom, the Wisconsin economy is in parlous condition. The state suffered the largest percentage decline of middle-class households in the nation between 2000 and 2013, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study. Median Wisconsin household income in this period dropped from $60,344 to $51,467 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Obvious questions follow: Why isn’t all this UW research igniting a wave of business and tech startups across the state? Why hasn’t the UW dynamo reversed the state’s economic decline?

UW-Madison, it’s fair to say, is feeling the heat.

The hostility of the ruling Republicans at the Capitol is as plain to see as the UW System’s $250 million budget cut and Gov. Scott Walker’s initial plan to gut the Wisconsin Idea, the university’s once sacrosanct pledge that its “beneficent influence” would extend statewide.

But that notion of “the boundaries of campus are the boundaries of the state” draws a sharp retort from skeptics who think UW-Madison’s reach seems to abruptly end at the Dane County line. Local folks may be proud that Dane County claims 73% of the new jobs created in Wisconsin over the last 10 years, but outstate observers see this as evidence of how UW-Madison beneficence is highly parochial.

Enter UW-Madison’s Discovery To Product program. I write how this bootcamp for campus entrepreneurs has nurtured a potential breakout campus discovery. Researchers Mark Cook and Jordan Sand have come up with a technique that could dramatically reduce the pervasive  use of human antibiotics in animal feed. That farm industry practice is blamed for producing deadly drug-resistant superbugs.

To read more about their discovery and the complaints that insiders make about UW-Madison’s hostility towards commercializing research, please go here.

Organic Valley At The Crossroads

July 28, 2015

The Organic Valley farmers coop has been a huge success. With national sales hitting almost $1 billion, this upstart challenger of conventional agriculture has helped create a massive consumer market for chemical-free farming. Small family farmers in Wisconsin and across the nation have gone organic because of the premium prices their milk, eggs and meat attracts in the organic marketplace. But in researching this story for The Progressive magazine I found the coop in a surprisingly precarious position. I write:

Surging consumer demand for organics has created supply shortages for dairy products, and immense opportunities for profit. That has attracted some of the nation’s largest American food corporations to step up an already sizable investment in organics. These aren’t people motivated by protecting the environment, says David Kaseno of the National Farmers Organization. They are “people who think: ‘Hey we can make a lot of money in organic milk.’”

The $46 billion merger of Kraft Foods Group and the H.J. Heinz Co. in March will prompt its rivals to bulk up by buying fast-growing organic food labels, both The New York Times and Bloomberg News predicted. The food giants already produce a stunning 70 percent of the items stocked in a typical co-op grocery, says Philip Howard,a Michigan State University professor who tracks corporate consolidation in the organic world.

For organic industry observers, this poses stark questions for Organic Valley: Is it smart enough and big enough to compete with the corporate giants? Will it yield to the temptation to compromise organic standards to maintain market share? More to the point, will it hold on to its all-important dairy members, who have been abandoning the co-op for the significantly better pay offered by some Organic Valley competitors?

This is the paradox of Organic Valley: At a moment of great success, it faces something of an existential threat.

To read more, please go here.

I interviewed a ton of people for the story, including Organic Valley CEO George Siemon. Some of this views can be found in the story. I wrote an online sidebar that touches on other matters. I suspect that some people will be surprised at his positive impressions of Walmart. You can read about it here.

I also wrote about the Organic Valley coop for Isthmus. You can find those earlier stories from 2007 and 2008 here and here and here.


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