By Tom Still

LA CROSSE – What makes for a strong regional economy? That question stood at the center of a recent economic indicators breakfast that drew 190 people from the three-state “7 Rivers Region” anchored by La Crosse and Winona, Minn. The answers could be instructive for Wisconsin’s other economic development regions.

The 7 Rivers Region was among the first in Wisconsin to recognize that working together – across city, county and even state lines – would help ensure the prosperity of people on all sides. Gone are the days when La Crosse thrived by one-upping Winona, or a county on the Iowa side of the Mississippi got ahead by trumping a county on the Wisconsin side. Today’s competition is international. Collaborating around common goals, while encouraging private businesses to compete in all markets, has been central to the 7 Rivers Region and the formal 7 Rivers Alliance.

When the group held its annual economic indicators breakfast on the campus of UW-La Crosse, people showed at 7 a.m. from all three states, and a strong contingent from Winona took part through an audio and video link. My role was to offer some opening thoughts and moderate a panel that included small business leaders from both sides of the river. Here were my suggestions about the elements of a strong regional economy:

-    People, including experienced managers. In the “knowledge economy” of the 21st century, those regions that have the right work force are better positioned to innovate and to adapt quickly. Experienced managers help start-ups and early stage companies move to the next level; tech-savvy workers help at all levels. Regions can draw from a larger, yet still primarily local, pool of workers.
-    Availability of capital. That can start with banks and credit unions that understand the importance of seeding small businesses, and with government grants and loans through agencies such as the U.S. Small Business Administration, state commerce departments and federal Small Business Innovation Research grants. It can progress to angel investments, venture capital or some other form of private equity. A region is more likely to build and attract the full spectrum.
-     Entrepreneurial climate and services. If a community or region doesn’t value entrepreneurship, it shows. Building local networks that plug into larger regional and statewide efforts help expose entrepreneurs – who often make the mistake of thinking they’re “too busy” to network or seek help – to the resources they need. Most regions in Wisconsin are big enough to have what it takes, or to mesh with statewide resources.
-    Reasonable business costs. Taxes are a part of the mix, but so are building and land costs, labor costs, the cost of buying electricity, water and natural gas, transportation costs and much more. Wisconsin offers a far better deal for most businesses than what is available in many parts of the country; we must do a better job of advertising that fact. Regions can help to spread the message.
-    High quality of life. Every state and every region will brag about its quality of life, and most will spend more doing so. What Wisconsin and other parts of the upper Midwest have are statistics to actually back it up – education rates, crime rates, traffic patterns and more. Quality of life can be a selling point for regions. More important, it’s a way of retaining workers and managers once they’re here.
-    Infrastructure. Regions need to be linked to the global economy. That means the right broadband and Internet connectivity, access to major highways, proximity to air, rail and even harbor facilities. Reliable energy supplies and ample water are also vital. Most regions in Wisconsin can lay claim to most of that, although air connections can be a sore thumb for some.
-    Partnerships between government, academia and industry. The 7 Rivers Region is a good example of such partnerships. Industry is accustomed to working with UW-La Crosse, Winona State, Western Wisconsin Technical College and more. The La Crosse Medical Health Science Consortium draws on partners in Minnesota and Wisconsin. As three entrepreneurs told the 7 Rivers meeting, local governments help to cut red tape and sometimes provide incentives.
-    A good story to tell. Wisconsin’s regions need to persuade others outside the state and even the nation that we’ve got more than foam cheeseheads to sell. Let’s face it: Much of the nation learns everything it knows about Wisconsin by tuning into a Green Bay Packers game. As regions refine their stories, they need to tell it outside Wisconsin.

Not every region in Wisconsin has all these elements of success – yet. But most are chipping away at the list, recognizing that collaboration will get them there sooner rather than later.

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