Forget Austin envy: Cities, states, and regions must map their own routes to success

It’s rarely a bad idea to compare and contrast when it comes to business development, whether it’s city to city, state to state, or region to region.

It can be a really bad idea, however, to get hung up on it.

Unfortunately, the latter seems to be the case these days in Wisconsin, where a slow recovery from the Great Recession has sent business, government, and economic development leaders scrambling for answers wherever the grass looks greener.

In Milwaukee, historic suspicion of Madison as a place populated by eggheads, hippies, and assorted liberals sometimes splashes over into the economic development world. “What is Madison doing right that Milwaukee can’t do better?” the city’s thought leaders sometimes ask. The answer is “nothing” — except, perhaps, celebrating eggheads, hippies, and liberals who have innovative business ideas. (Think Epic Systems and Promega.)

Better comparisons for Milwaukee are places such as Louisville, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh — all cities in the nation’s heartland, all roughly the same size as Wisconsin’s largest city, and each working hard on its economic future.

The same holds true for Madison, which has been obsessed with measuring itself against Austin, Texas, since the mid-1980s — but for reasons that don’t always add up.

Yes, Austin is a state capital. Yes, it is home to a major research university. And, yes, it’s got the same eclectic ambience and cultural mojo that helps to define Madison. In fact, the Austin Independent Business Alliance adopted the motto “Keep Austin Weird” to … well, help keep the place weird. But the checklist of comparisons shortens after that.

Austin has always been a much larger city than Madison. Austin boasted 346,000 city residents and 585,000 metro residents in 1980, when Madison stood at 171,000 and 324,000, respectively. The gap widened as time marched on. Austin today has about 843,000 city residents and a metro population of 1.8 million. It’s the nation’s 11th largest city.

Madison stands at 240,000 city residents and a metro population of about 570,000. It is the nation’s 82nd largest city.

Learning why Austin grew faster than Madison, even if it was twice as large to begin with, is instructive. It’s also important, however, not to aspire to be copycats — as a visitor told a group hosted by Madison magazine and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce in late October.

Hugh Forrest is director of the South By Southwest Interactive Festival, a weeklong festival of music, technology, film, and more that launched in Austin in 1987 to drive business to bars and restaurants during college spring break week. It was “started by a bunch of hippies,” Forrest said, and “struggled for a long, long time” before becoming the iconic event it is today.



With an estimated economic impact of $218 million per year, SXSW is what other tech-savvy, culturally creative cities like to think they can emulate. But it’s a lot harder than it looks, Forrest said. That was evidenced by the experience of Portland, Ore., which flopped in its effort to build a “North By Northwest” event — even with guidance from SXSW veterans.

“Events like South By Southwest can be … replicated in other cities,” Forrest said, “but it’s best when they grow organically. Find what everyone thinks is a weakness and turn it into a strength … [and] be prepared to fail on a very small scale for years and years.”

In short, cities need to build their identities and economies based on indigenous strengths and needs versus what they envy about others. While it always makes sense to learn about best practices over the horizon, it makes sense to translate that knowledge to what is most likely to work locally.

Within Wisconsin, regional economies vary in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Milwaukee isn’t Madison, and vice versa; the same holds for comparing Kenosha to Appleton, La Crosse to Eau Claire, Wausau to Racine, and so on. The best ideas for how to move those communities ahead are likely to come from within those cities — informed by best practices elsewhere, but not carbon-copied. 

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