A Smorgasbord of Semi-Informed Opinions

A few random thoughts about recent events:

First, on the election and the forthcoming demise of the mediocre-speed train. Scott Walker ran against it and he won. Why, then, would people be so shocked that he's working to redirect the $810 million allocated to build the system into Wisconsin road projects? I hope the Democratic Party has learned a few lessons about trying to shove things down people's throats — i.e. the train and health care reform — rather than effectively build the case for it. This one had a few things going against it: namely, it was not truly high-speed, the Department of Transportation could never give anyone a straight answer about how much it would cost state taxpayers to operate and maintain it (necessary for any cost-benefit analysis in an era of budget deficits), and they kept providing a moving target in terms of how much a daily round trip would cost.

The Madison and Milwaukee business communities apparently differ on the merits — the Hiawatha service between Milwaukee and Chicago is much more important to Brew City business leaders — so business support is mixed at best. Quite frankly, economic development organizations like Thrive made a better case for it than politicians ever did, which was a big part of the problem. Jim Imhoff, CEO of the First Weber Group and incoming chairman of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, recently addressed one of my oft-stated concerns by noting that complaining about operational costs is sort of like getting an expensive home and griping about paying the property taxes. Why can't elected officials frame an argument like that?

And then a no-bid contract was awarded to Talgo, a train manufacturer based in Spain, when there was a perfectly good Wisconsin option, Milwaukee's Super Steel Products, which should at least received some consideration. Do you think that rubbed a few people the wrong way?

The entire high-speed train project was a botched campaign from the start. That's a shame because high-speed rail service would have some regional merit — another layer of connectivity for the IQ Corridor — especially if the cost and speed of the train actually competed with other modes of transportation.

Don't expect Walker to cave on this one. He has the weight of statewide public opinion on his side, but he might be more amenable to helping Madison dip its toes deeper into the water on commuter rail to deal with traffic navigation around four lakes and a narrow isthmus.

Harley-Davidson's rejection of $25 million in state tax credits came as no big surprise, given how many operational strings were attached to it. Instead of striking deals with individual companies, the state would be much better off improving the overall business climate, which is obviously not what it needs to be. I recently interviewed a fine southern gentleman named Mac Holladay, who was the keynoter Nov. 9 when Thrive presented its regional economic report. He spoke eloquently and entertainingly about the need for public-private partnerships — relationships, really — that are necessary to "grow your own" businesses and promote new business formation. He's right about that, but that only happens when business is viewed as a partner, not a pariah, which means combined reporting and certain onerous new regulations should die a fast death.

This brings me to Sub-Zero, Inc., a large local employer that recently announced that it was moving jobs to Arizona. Has anyone in the city of Fitchburg or the State of Wisconsin bothered to contact this company to see what needs to be done to prevent any more Wisconsin-to-Arizona erosion? When existing companies expand but not here, that should be a red flag. I'm not advocating a special deal for Sub-Zero, but an overall economic strategy that makes Wisconsin their first and only choice when it comes to expansion.

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