By Tom Still

MADISON – The Wisconsin Economic Summit served its purpose by fading away.

That’s not to say the four summits that took place between 2000 and 2003 were unsuccessful; on the contrary, they highlighted economic trends that are shaping the state’s growth. But once those general themes were pinpointed, and political will was mobilized to do something about them, the Wisconsin Economic Summit needed to give way to more specific strategies.

The “Building the New Wisconsin Economy” project is one such offshoot of the Wisconsin Economic Summit, which was sponsored by the UW System as a way to leverage the resources of the university to help Wisconsin cope with economic change.

This week, the spirit of the summits will live on through the latest installment in “Building the New Wisconsin Economy,” a largely private initiative that began in 2004 with a series of six forums across Wisconsin. On Tuesday and Wednesday, BNWE organizers will shed light on economic development techniques that are working in Wisconsin – and begin to build user-friendly “templates” that can be adopted by communities at various stages of the economic development debate.

The forum, to be held in Middleton with the sponsorship of the UW System and a number of private and public groups, will focus on development examples in Sauk County, the 7 Rivers Region surrounding La Crosse, and the Northeast Wisconsin Regional Economic Partnership in the Fox Valley. That’s not to say those are the only strong development examples, but they’re representative of what can be done with the right goals, planning and execution.

“Our forum is really an outgrowth of our first phase in 2004, during which we discovered how many good things were happening around Wisconsin,” said Jim Wood, president of Wood Communications Group, the principal BNWE organizer. “Now, we’re really focused on building those templates.”

The BNWE project is “not a one-day bake sale,” Wood emphasized, because the final product will be guides that can be followed by communities across Wisconsin. Three basic approaches will be prepared: One for communities just starting to come to grips with their economic future, another for communities a bit farther down the road but not yet seeing results, and another for communities that have had some success but aren’t quite sure how to build upon it.

Those plans will be “tested” in three Wisconsin communities this fall, Wood said, before becoming publicly available.

“People could attend the forum this week and leave with a lot of information, but the process is really about building those templates and testing them,” he said.

The Wisconsin Economic Summit delivered some lasting messages. They stressed the need to overcome city-to-city or county-to-county rivalries and engage in regional cooperation, something that is beginning to happen in Wisconsin. They emphasized the need for industry “clusters” to form and work together, which is happening with somewhat less success. They urged the speedier development of a knowledge-based, tech-based economy, which is taking place at varying speeds across Wisconsin.

Those summits also foresaw the need for a lot more work in specific areas – particularly new company creation. That’s one reason why the Wisconsin Technology Council has launched the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, the Governor’s Business Plan Contest and the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, which will take place Oct. 19-20 in Madison. In general, the state’s economic development emphasis has shifted from chasing smokestacks to encouraging homegrown entrepreneurs.

“Building the New Wisconsin Economy” is another tool in that box. It is aimed at helping communities take stock of their resources, determine where they fit in the regional and even global economy, and devise strategies for moving ahead. The children of the Wisconsin Economic Summit are making their mother proud.