Initiative sparks innovation

MadREP’s new initiative aims to “bridge” statewide gaps and foster urban and rural collaboration to bolster business.
0823 Editorcontent Biz Report Opener
Tonnetta Darcel Carter and Jason Fields

This fall, the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP) will launch a new initiative poised — in the agency’s words — to “close the [region’s] economic gaps and drive innovation for rural and urban communities.” The initiative, called Bridge Wisconsin, will prioritize community-based investment to sustainably improve quality of life and leverage urban and rural assets to foster economic growth.

At the helm of the initiative is Tonnetta Darcel Carter, appointed in late June as Bridge Wisconsin’s chief strategy officer. With experience across industries including finance, philanthropy, and private equity, she is well-suited to the job ahead, according to MadREP President and CEO Jason Fields. Darcel Carter will be responsible for assessing the region in comparison to its neighbors and developing Bridge Wisconsin to fill in economic gaps, Fields says.

In developing its 2024–28 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, Darcel Carter says MadREP has undertaken multiple regional surveys to assess areas of need. The five priorities of Bridge Wisconsin, as identified by the results of these surveys, include adequate housing, employment, economic resources, education, and the environment.

Darcel Carter calls the Madison region “the ideal location to launch an urban/rural innovation hub” in light of its economic assets, including the industrial diversity of its eight counties. “Dane County’s concentration of science and technology employers spur growth and in-migration from younger tech talent, while [its] ‘ring counties,’ which show strength in agriculture and manufacturing, are well-positioned to offer a lower cost of living to young workers,” Darcel Carter says.

That said, she acknowledges that regional demographics may present a challenge to the future success of communities, given the population’s lower racial diversity and older age relative to aspirational peer regions like Raleigh, North Carolina and Austin, Texas.

In addition, neither the region’s urban communities nor its rural ones are immune to the challenges facing Wisconsin in general — including the statewide housing shortage and accessibility to capital and technical resources — but this creates an opportunity for community collaboration that stands to benefit the region by way of a ripple effect. “We view econom­ic interdependence as an asset to our communities,” Darcel Carter says. “It uniquely positions us to share resources, talent, ideas, and lean into our communal expertise to help drive the economic growth of our neighbors, which is a mutually beneficial construct. We envision a separate collaboration for each strategic priority inclusive of rural and urban experts.”

What might the execution of this strategy look like for some of Bridge Wisconsin’s highest-priority areas? When it comes to housing, MadREP hopes to close workforce housing gaps and increase homeownership by partnering with organizations to train developers and support them through various programming. Closing the gaps in trained rural developers, lot creation, and creative financing options to combat rising interest rates “will allow for more opportunities to meet the state’s housing needs,” Darcel Carter says.

Bridge Wisconsin will also work to rectify Wisconsin’s funding deficit for entrepreneurs by supporting small and tech-enabled businesses with capital and technical resources, which can change the economic landscape for women-owned and veteran-owned businesses and businesses owned by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.

The initiative also seeks to address labor shortages and skills gaps across industries and take advantage of what Darcel Carter calls “the unique opportunity to upskill existing workers and train near-workforce-ready residents with a specific skill set to meet growing industry and business needs.”