By Tom Still
MADISON – Depending on your reading habits, you either feel pretty good about living in Wisconsin these days – or you’re ready to move someplace with a lot more promise, like Iraq.
This is a time of year when many magazines and think-tanks publish their “best places” rankings, which cheerfully rate the best places to raise kids, retire, be gay or ride your bike. The rankings that usually attract the most attention – and generate the most angst – are those that attempt to measure best (and worst) cities and states for business.
Wisconsin took a mid-July hit in the second annual Forbes magazine ranking of “the best states for business,” placing 44th out of 50 – barely ahead of auto layoff capital Michigan, Katrina-battered Louisiana and everyone’s stereotypical image of Appalachia, West Virginia.
Despite placing 8th in Forbes’ quality of life category, Wisconsin fared no better than 33rd in any other class and placed 44th in the regulatory environment category. That category measured each state’s regulatory and tort (legal liability) climate, incentives, the transportation infrastructure and bond ratings.
It’s almost surprising Wisconsin wasn’t dead last, given the following: The Wisconsin Supreme Court made national headlines in 2006 when it more or less overturned a millennium of precedent in product liability lawsuits. State and local governments historically offer little in tax breaks, cheap land and other incentives to lure businesses to Wisconsin. State funding for transportation is more uncertain than at any time in recent memory. And state budget problems have depressed the state’s ability to get favorable interest rates on bonds.
While not as harsh as the Forbes rankings, Wisconsin came across as somewhat lackluster in the Fortune Small Business.com survey of best places for small business (27th) and CNBC’s Top States for Doing Business (33rd). Under the heading of “thank goodness for small favors,” Wisconsin did not place in the bottom 10 in the Tax Foundation’s 2007 state business tax climate index – but it was 38th out of 50.
Don’t move to Baghdad just yet, however. Other recent surveys painted a different picture of Wisconsin or its cities.
A few months back, the 20th annual “Development Report Card for the States” by the Washington-based Corporation for Enterprise Development placed Wisconsin on its honor roll along with Connecticut, Delaware, Colorado, Massachusetts, Utah and perennial comparison rival Minnesota. That was no small feat given the survey has 67 categories.
“Fast Company” magazine, a must-read for many techies, ranked Madison among its 30 “fast cities” for 2007, calling it the “biotech bastion of the breadbasket.” Money magazine’s rankings of the best places to live in America lauded Madison suburb Middleton as No. 1 and placed Germantown, New Berlin and Franklin in the nation’s top 100.
Then there’s Milwaukee, which has gone from being portrayed as a rusting relic to being a media darling.
In its recently released rankings, Fortune magazine, the Great Places to Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management placed nine Milwaukee-area companies on various “best places to work” lists. That’s a greater concentration than any other metro area in the United States.
Gourmet, National Geographic, Fortune and Chicago magazines have all featured Milwaukee within the last year or so. And for those who fret about earthquakes, hurricanes and flash floods, SustainLane reported in 2006 that Milwaukee and Mesa, Ariz., are the U.S. cities at the lowest risk of having a natural disaster.
The mediocre-to-worse business rankings are still cause for concern, however. They consistently portray Wisconsin as being unfriendly to business, which is a perception that can be hard to live down – even if the reality is changing. Business leaders should talk about what’s right about Wisconsin and political leaders must stick by policies that position the state for competitiveness.
Quality of life rankings are great, but ultimately, our quality of life will suffer if the Wisconsin economy stagnates.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.