California and bust? For those fleeing Golden State, Wisconsin offers silver lining

From tortuous rents to government over-reach, from wildfires to poor public transit, and from chronic homelessness to high taxes with little to show for it, California has become a place some companies want to put in the rearview mirrors of their moving vans.

Here’s an open invitation to companies and entrepreneurs looking for a change of scenery: Come to Wisconsin.

Escaping to Wisconsin might not be the first thought to enter the minds of executives and startup founders in Silicon Valley or elsewhere in sunny California, but there are good reasons for them to put the Badger State on the relocation shopping list.

Those reasons rarely include tax breaks or moving costs, and perhaps not weather, but they do extend to characteristics and qualities many corporate planners crave for their businesses and their employees.

They include quality of life, available talent trained by good schools, competitive business costs, a strong research and development tradition, ample water supplies, and location in what I call the “I-Q Corridor,” the interstate band that connects Wisconsin with two regional powerhouses, Chicagoland and the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

The “I” stands for interstate, innovation, intellectual property, and investment; the “Q” captures quality of life, research, education, workforce, and just about anything else worth bragging about.

Those pondering a move from Wisconsin need not rely on my branding slogan alone, of course. Outsiders who have looked at the state’s tech and entrepreneurial climate agree it’s on the rise — progress that COVID-19 has interrupted but not halted.

In late 2019, the Brookings Institution issued a report that identified about three-dozen “growth centers” in the United States that exhibited the same kind of dynamism that characterized Silicon Valley in an earlier era. Madison was No. 1 on Brookings’ prospect list. That same ranking included three other pillars of the I-Q Corridor: The Twin Cities (No. 2), the Chicago region (No. 12), and the Milwaukee Metro area (No. 17).

The Brookings report was closely followed by “A vital Midwest: The path to a new prosperity,” co-authored for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs by John Austin, who is director of the Michigan Economic Center and a senior fellow at Brookings.

The Austin report offered best-practice examples of how cities large and small in the Midwest, which Austin defines as stretching from western Pennsylvania through Minnesota and Iowa, are uniquely adapting to an economy driven by global trends, information technology, health care, and more.

Some are doing so by embracing innovation from academic research centers, with Madison being a prominent example in Austin’s report. Other communities are working with different strengths to reinvent themselves, with advanced manufacturing, trade, renewable energy, software, and tourism being among the tools. Examples include Eau Claire, Appleton, and Green Bay.

So far, the California exodus has largely focused on larger cities — Atlanta, Houston, Miami, Denver, and Chicago are reported to be among the destinations for people and companies on the move from California. Topping the list, according to the website moveBuddha.com, is Austin, Texas, a city often described as a larger Madison minus the lakes.

Part of the draw has been the ease of hiring and keeping employees in the Lone Star State, a relatively low cost of living, and no individual income tax. It’s also an energetic city with a vibrant music scene, a state capitol, and a major university. Oracle, Digital Realty, and Palantir Technologies are among high-profile movers; Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame has also begun to shift operations there.

If Austin can lure people and companies from California, why not Madison and Milwaukee? Weather alone shouldn’t be a deterrent; many people will trade a couple months of snow for a couple of months of 100-degree-plus temperatures. One difference: Austin’s civic leaders aren’t afraid to market their hometown. The same goes for Miami, Florida, where the mayor mounted a Twitter campaign that helped interest Founders Fund, a major venture capital firm.

California is still the center of the tech universe and it may yet turn itself around. Wish them well, but let’s also keep Wisconsin on the search list for those Californians looking for a new home.

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