The 250 or so people who gathered this month for the 40th annual meeting of the La Crosse Area Development Corp. aren’t without their differences. The crowd included business leaders and educators, Republicans and Democrats, “townies” and academic gowns, and even a few politicians who have butted heads in recent elections.
Fortunately for La Crosse, a picturesque Mississippi River city of 52,000 people, those differences aren’t necessarily divisions.
With a jobless rate of 5.2 percent, more than 2 percentage points lower than the statewide rate, La Crosse and surrounding La Crosse County appear to be weathering the enduring economic storm better than many places in Wisconsin. The question is “Why?”
Perhaps it’s the above-average education rate for its labor force. Or the low cost of living, which runs 10 percent or more below the U.S. average. Or its competitive health-care sector. Or the healthy mix of homegrown companies such as Kwik Trip, Trane, Logistics Health, Reinhart FoodService and City Brewing, which now has more brew house workers than the old G. Heileman Brewing Co. at its peak.
Or maybe it’s simply that people in La Crosse understand how to disagree without being constantly disagreeable.
Getting along with its neighbors have been a consistent story line in La Crosse, where organizations such as LADCO and the 7 Rivers regional alliance have often looked beyond political boundaries to identify problems and offer solutions. One speaker at the Dec. 14 LADCO meeting was Jerry Miller, the mayor of nearby Winona, Minn., who talked about the prospects for improved passenger rail service across state lines. No Gopher-Badger rivalry there.
It’s not that La Crosse is a boom town. Job growth has been less than 1 percent per year over the past decade, and worker skills and job openings don’t always match. But it has proven more resilient than many Wisconsin communities – and it may offer lessons for parts of the state that continue to struggle with plant closings and job losses.
“There are a lot of examples of collaboration here with business, government and beyond, which is all the more important in this tough fiscal environment,” said Jim Hill, LADCO’s executive director.
While LADCO is focused in La Crosse County, the 7 Rivers Alliance includes 18 counties in three states (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa) and assists with branding, marketing and other joint economic development goals.
Not everything goes smoothly, of course, especially when local governments compete over potential corporate additions to the property tax base. However, most observers agree the regional approach provides a foundation for work on knotty issues.
In addition to 7 Rivers, other regional organizations in Wisconsin include Thrive in south-central Wisconsin, Milwaukee 7 in southeast Wisconsin, NEW North in northeast Wisconsin, Centergy in central Wisconsin, Momentum West in west-central Wisconsin, and Grow North in the northern tier of counties. All are working with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the public-private successor to the state Department of Commerce.
The challenges range from region to region – for example, central Wisconsin is coming to grips with continued losses in the paper industry – and so do the opportunities to build specific clusters.
Long a favorite of economists and business development professionals, economic clusters are generally defined as a concentration of interconnected businesses, suppliers and other institutions in a particular field. Clusters are sometimes geographic – and sometimes defined by trade patterns that cross state, national and even international borders. Companies in clusters most often act as competitors, but sometimes they’re collaborators within a larger supply chain.
In Milwaukee 7, for example, there’s interest in helping grow the water technology, design, medical research and energy technology clusters. In the Madison-based Thrive region, targeted sectors might be health care and life sciences, agriculture and food processing. In the NEW North, wind, biofuels, data centers, marine manufacturing and defense have emerged.
Branding those regions and their clusters can be tricky, Hill cautioned.
“The piece of regionalism that is most attractive is marketing, but I think it’s important to be careful about the brand you choose,” Hill said. “It can’t just be a feel-good exercise. You name your kids to feel good. You name your products so someone else around the world knows what it is and how to find you.”
Thanks to a cooperative structure and people who make it work, the La Crosse area is doing a better job of getting found.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.