By Tom Still

MADISON – It’s hard enough for a medium-sized city such as Madison or a recovering “Rust Belt” icon such as Milwaukee to grow and maintain a tech-based economy, so imagine what it’s like in parts of Wisconsin where the closest thing to a biotech company is an ethanol plant.

What’s working in rural Wisconsin – and what’s needed? That’s what policymakers and economic development specialists wonder as they look for ways to extend the benefits of the 21st century “knowledge economy” beyond our biggest city limits.

At this week’s Lake Superior Technology Conference, a collection of communities, educational institutions and business leaders will drill down into the economic bedrock of Ashland, a city of about 10,000 people on the shores of Lake Superior. It’s the third annual conference under that name, organized by the local chapter of the Wisconsin Innovation Network, the Wisconsin Technology Council and others in the region.

In the Ashland area, community leaders have decided against chasing shadows in business sectors where they have little or no foundation. Attracting medical biotechnology companies and researchers probably isn’t in the cards. But leaders in Ashland are committed to building on existing strengths, such as a strong educational system, a solid telecommunications infrastructure, environmental entrepreneurism and the chance to be a part of the biofuels revolution.

The Aug. 6-7 conference will feature panel discussions on eco-industrial development, trends in alternative energy and biofuels, regional economic development models and using education as an economic driver. The conclusions reached in those discussions will help guide the region as it charts its economic future.

Every community in Wisconsin is different, of course, but here are a few statewide strategies that may help some.

•      Promote rural Wisconsin as a “farm-shoring” location for tech-based companies. Farm-shoring, or the outsourcing of work to domestic rural locations, is gaining visibility among companies that would prefer not to ship U.S. jobs overseas. The cost of living, wages and work ethic in rural areas can compete with the cheap labor touted by offshore providers, especially when other advantages are considered. Those factors include avoidance of cross-cultural confusion, transnational legal issues, some security problems and time-zone differences.
•      Encourage educational institutions to work together on workforce issues. It’s hard to live more than an hour’s drive from a four-year college, a two-year college or a technical college in Wisconsin. In most of rural Wisconsin, one of each is within range. Those institutions can do a better job of collaborating to address workforce issues, which often trouble business owners in smaller communities. Cooperation with K-12 districts is also essential, as those schools can set the tone.
•      Pass an Education Tax Credit to help companies everywhere meet labor demands.  It would provide employers a credit equal to 50 percent of tuition paid at any Wisconsin college, university, or technical college for qualified individuals. An Education Tax Credit would leverage private investment in education, especially for low-income groups or workers making a transition.
•      Leverage the federal New Markets Tax Credit Program, which permits taxpayers to receive a credit against federal income taxes for making qualified equity investments in designated Community Development Entities. Those equity investments, such as angel or venture capital, must in turn be used by the CDE to provide investments in low-income communities. In Wisconsin, there more than 100 qualifying census tracts spread among 43 predominantly rural counties. Could existing state tax credits be used to help attract more New Markets investments?
•      Improve broadband and cell phone penetration. Higher broadband penetration allows small businesses, which account for 60 percent of new jobs in Wisconsin, to expand to national and even international markets. It creates more opportunities for creation of businesses related to information technology, one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy. It enables hospitals and clinics to better utilize telemedicine applications. And it provides rural Wisconsin residents with greater access to higher education through distance learning systems. Cell phone coverage may be just as important: A poor cell phone signal is at least an annoyance and often a deal-killer for most business location specialists.
•      Make better use of state Technology Zone tax credits. Some communities have used them effectively; others have allowed them to languish. At some point, the governor and the Legislature may want to consider a statewide tax credits zone (it’s now regional) to reward those communities that have been putting the credits to work but who may now be bumping up against the ceiling.

Rural Wisconsin can build a stronger tech-based economy. Individual communities are plotting their own courses, and there are statewide tools that can help.

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