By Tom Still

SHEBOYGAN – This year’s New North Summit drew somewhere north of 500 people to a lakeside resort for a day’s worth of talk about strengthening the economy of the 18-county region. From Gov. Jim Doyle to individual entrepreneurs, attendees at the summit heard from speakers with ideas for promoting the region, nurturing its unique assets and branding it as a great place to live and work.

New North, which is clustered in northeast Wisconsin, is a prominent example of the “New Regionalism” in state economic development circles. Born of discussions seven years ago during the Wisconsin Economic Summits in Milwaukee, the concept is finally coming of age with organizations such as Milwaukee 7 in southeast Wisconsin, Centergy in central Wisconsin, Thrive in the Madison area, the 7 Rivers Region near La Crosse, Momentum Chippewa Valley and more.

The effort has become a centerpiece of Doyle’s economic strategy and a legitimate way for otherwise diverse interests, public and private, to pull together to get things done. While there are advantages to the regional approach, there are some reasons to withhold judgment for a while on just how successful some of these entities might be.

First, here’s why regional economic development makes sense:

?      We don’t live in a city-by-city, county-by-county world anymore. While that was certainly the economic model through much of the 20th century, the global economy now dictates otherwise. Stevens Point won’t get ahead by competing with Wausau or Marshfield, but all three might profit by collaborating within a region.
?      Regions can be big enough to brand, and thus promote, within Wisconsin and outside its borders. Other than Milwaukee, Madison or Green Bay, most Wisconsin cities are too small to sell themselves effectively outside the state. Branding counties? Good luck. No one remembers county names outside their home states except for a select few, such as Cook County in Illinois or Napa County in California.
?      Regions can more effectively leverage local resources. Assuming local government wants to cooperate, economic development gains by not pitting city against village and village against town. Just ask the folks in the Denver, Colo., region, where cooperation among 30-plus entities has busted down barriers and moved that economy ahead.

Here’s why regionalism alone isn’t enough:

-    Even regions may not be readily identifiable outside the state. Will someone living in Michigan be drawn to “Thrive” here? Will a business leader in Minnesota distinguish between “New North” and “Grow North” – or, for that matter, think they’re anywhere but in his own state? Building brands is neither cheap nor short-term.
-     Let’s not trade city-by-city competition for region-by-region rivalry. At the end of the day, all economic regions in Wisconsin benefit if the overall economic health of the state improves.
-    Economic regions may be tempted to lose sight of statewide challenges and assets. It’s tempting for a New North or Centergy to shrug off the problems of Milwaukee 7, for example, thinking it really doesn’t hit close to home. That’s the first step toward the Balkanization of Wisconsin – and a step away of thinking about competing globally.
-    Because it’s a priority to keep partners on the same page, regional economic development organizations might slip into the habit of communicating only within their regions. The real benefit is talking with others outside the region, whether that’s within Wisconsin or around the world.
-    Regions need to avoid picking winners. Thrive flirted with that syndrome when it decided the area’s “target” industrial sectors are biotechnology, agriculture and health care. Biotech is certainly big business in the Madison area, but so are other technologies, such as medical equipment and Internet-based businesses. Fortunately, Thrive’s leaders pinpointed sub-sectors to broaden their targets.

The next few years will be critical for Wisconsin’s economic regional groups. Some will inevitably prove more successful than others. The only safe bet, however, is that none will succeed without bearing in mind the overall economic health of the state.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.