In defense of WEDC
The last month has been a field day for critics of Gov. Scott Walker’s embattled Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. They say it can’t be fixed. It’s a mess. We should throw it out and start over.
As former Columbus mayor, former vice president of the Columbia County Economic Development Corporation, and as someone who has built three successful businesses, allow me to strongly disagree.
WEDC is one of this governor’s best ideas. We don’t need to throw it out. If anything, we need to strengthen it.
I’m a conservative. I believe government doesn’t “create jobs.’’ But I also believe it can be a catalyst to help make things happen in the private sector.
“Government’’ can provide bridge loans and tax credits to leverage traditional financing. It can offer startup assistance for promising new ideas and new patents upon which businesses can be built. Government integrates infrastructure investments, such as road improvements, with private development. And it can provide assistance to cities and counties to help them develop their local economies.
That’s what WEDC does. And it works. Just in the past few days, it announced it has successfully helped land a Dollar General distribution center whose total employment amounts to a 10th of Janesville’s entire population.
We can’t go backwards. Wisconsin’s past record on job creation was fairly lousy because, frankly, we weren’t working very hard at it. Our former Commerce Department was mostly a regulatory and statistics-gathering agency. Its private economic development arm, Forward Wisconsin, was a tiny office run by a few people who spent most of their time generating private donations to fund it.
As we fiddled, Wisconsin’s share of America’s gross national product slipped from 2.1% in 1963 to 1.7% in 2008. For years, we have ranked near the bottom in new job creation.
Past governors gave this mostly lip service. Gov. McCallum’s “Build Wisconsin’’ and former Gov. Doyle’s “Grow Wisconsin’’ were invisible because neither governor put much personal leadership stake in them.
WEDC is Wisconsin’s “big idea.’’ Many lawmakers in both parties supported a muscular new economic development agency, the intellectual basis for which emanated from the Wisconsin Economic Development Summit’s “Wisconsin Prosperity Strategy’’ in 2010. Its title: “Be Bold.’’
That, of course, was the problem — and the folks at WEDC would be the first to admit it. They quickly demolished Commerce, leaving a vacuum of oversight over existing loans and programs. They hired people who didn’t always grasp the complex interface of private lending government economic development tools.
Anxious to prove themselves, the newcomers pushed hard for quick success at the expense of building a solid foundation. Audits show they lent a lot of money to businesses they didn’t properly vet.
Critics have it half right. WEDC was a mess. But it’s still a great idea and it’s fixable. Since 2013, the agency has developed firm new regulations and rules and modernized the old Commerce data systems. WEDC says it has since successfully provided 760 awards to qualified businesses.
WEDC’s new leader, Mark Hogan, is a retired banking executive and chairman of the board of WHEDA, the state’s quasi-private housing and small business lending authority. Hogan is a no-nonsense guy who truly knows the business.
Let’s be patient. Economic development takes time. WEDC is our “big idea’’ that I believe will pay enormous dividends. We need to be in the game. And with WEDC, we’re a much stronger player.
Michael Eisenga is the former mayor of Columbus and vice president of the Columbia County Economic Development Corporation. He owns American Lending Solutions as well as a real estate development company. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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