Can Evers avoid same blunder with WEDC that Walker made with high-speed rail?

Eight years ago, Governor Walker entered office with a slightly flawed proposal for a high speed rail corridor from Chicago to Minneapolis sitting on his desk. He stopped the project — that was a mistake. We now know that the “new commerce” needs a low-cost, high-speed, coast-to-coast delivery system for goods and this piece of the puzzle would have put Wisconsin at the top of list for distribution — not to mention new manufacturing and assembly — opportunities. Governor Walker could have ensured the rail system was used to help Wisconsin businesses by implementing a few adjustments to the original proposal — he did not.

Today, newly elected Governor Evers will find a flawed economic development corporation — WEDC — sitting on his desk. He is proposing eliminating the entity — that would be a mistake. To compete for jobs and encourage new companies to come to Wisconsin we need an organization that can both shepherd them through the process and offer state and local incentives that will help them build, expand, and hire new employees, while still benefiting the local community and the state. Tony Evers has a real opportunity to change WEDC for the better — he may not.

WEDC needs to change and I have written about these changes before, but eliminating the organization and returning the functions to the even more bureaucratic departments of Commerce and Administration would be a mistake. At this point I am tempted to simply insert [an] article I wrote six years ago and I promise it would stand up today. Instead, I will offer just a few observations and suggestions that I hope someone will pass along.

First, we need to bring an economic development team to the entire state. Today, we have independent professionals in most counties and major cities. I propose that these nongovernment employees become a part of a truly independent WEDC. Salaries and benefits would be paid in part by the local communities and in part by WEDC. (A note to Tony: This would be equivalent to the CESA or UW Extension systems now used by schools and local government.) These professionals would work locally but would come to Madison regularly to develop strategies and learn all the tools at their disposal.

Next, we need to recreate and redistribute the tools. Tax incremental finance laws need to be rewritten to mirror how they are actually used successfully today. We need to remove the politics from new jobs tax credits and make these credits available to all growing companies that are willing to work with the state and local communities, and pay a good wage.

Finally, we need to track and facilitate the distribution of thousands of other benefits and programs. From federal Community Development Block Grants and Small Business Development Programs to local development programs, there are funds available that will require a unified effort to track, apply for, and administer.

We also need to track and control our efforts. A simple database of every company, incentives received, taxable value on brick and mortar, and number of new employees should be easy to create and maintain. The current WEDC sent me a spreadsheet with some of this data and then got upset when I reported that they had given millions to a company that failed to move to Wisconsin. Speaking of failure, we need to tie all of our incentives to measurable objectives. Doing this correctly will not require claw backs, lawsuits, and vanishing funds. We also need to partner with banks, angel investors, and “Mr. Wonderful” of Shark Tank to bring the expertise they offer to the table. If these entities do not see the value in a proposal, we should take that as a hint that we may not want to invest either.

So, here is the challenge. Governor Evers, you can be political and remove a flawed WEDC and return our economic development efforts to the hundreds of disjointed entities currently in place, or you can be a public servant and unify our efforts across the state to actually support the businesses that will provide jobs that will generate the taxes you need to accomplish your greater agenda. Do you build the railroad or derail the train?

Ken Harwood is editor of Wisconsin Development News.

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