By Tom Still

FITCHBURG – There’s probably no “secret sauce” for what makes some communities successful and others not, although the recipe usually includes a homegrown mix of economic vibrancy, civic leadership and a dash of urgency.

Such is the case these days in a number of Wisconsin communities that have charted competitive paths forward, often banking on indigenous strengths and local “champions” from both the private and public sectors.

Madison is one story that sometimes catches national attention because of its growing base of startup and emerging companies, but there are other examples, as well.

  • In La Crosse, Don Weber and Logistics Health Inc. have invested heavily in that’s city riverfront, once an eyesore and now a magnet for visitors and other companies.
  • In Beloit, the contributions and investments of Hendricks family – founders of ABC Supply – are bringing new vitality to that downtown and beyond.
  • In Janesville, the loss of a General Motors assembly plant forced that city to reassess and to attract or nurture new businesses, including two technology companies that may become world leaders in producing an essential medical isotope.
  • In Appleton, steady municipal leadership and engagement by some of the city’s largest companies have created a stronger downtown and a reason for Millennials to stay.
  • In Eau Claire, Zach Halmstad and JAMF Software have attracted a young workforce while injecting money and energy in a region that had lost key employers over time.

Halmstad spoke recently at the Fitchburg Business Appreciation luncheon on the subject of what it takes to prosper – economically, culturally and otherwise – in Wisconsin’s smaller communities. The location for his talk was fitting because the Fitchburg story can be instructive to others.

Today a city of nearly 26,000 people, Fitchburg in the late 1970s was largely a rural town threatened by the growth of Madison to its north and unsure of how to protect its identity in a rising tide of housing subdivisions.

That began to change in 1978 when Bill Linton founded a company, then called Biotec, to produce chemical reagents for researchers to use in their experiments. Biotec is today Promega, a global biotechnology company that continues to anchor what has become an identifiable city center.

That center also includes other tech companies such as Bruker AXS, CDW and Terso Solutions; retail and service businesses; the education-focused Biopharmaceutical Technology Center; and a mix of other amenities such as public buildings, child care, gardens, recreational trails and places for art fairs and farmers’ markets.

The co-evolution of Promega and Fitchburg as a city is outlined in a new report, “City in Motion: Forward Fitchburg’s Place-Based Economic Development Vision and Strategy.” It was produced by the City of Fitchburg, its Community and Economic Development Authority, its chamber of commerce and other partners, with help from Vandewalle & Associates Inc., a Wisconsin firm that specializes in helping Midwest communities target their growth strategies.

The report describes how Fitchburg and Promega grew concurrently, mainly because each was attuned to the needs and goals of the other.

“Many of the city’s leading businesses started in Fitchburg and grew alongside the city as it has grown,” the report noted. “As a result, Fitchburg’s business leaders feel an intimate connection to the city.”

The report also acknowledged there’s much work to be done: “Fitchburg is at a crucial moment in its evolution.”

Let no one deny that Fitchburg has two major advantages – the state Capitol and the UW-Madison are a short drive away. Not every community gets that kind of head start. However, there were many chances in the 33 years since Fitchburg was incorporated as a city for everyone involved to make poor choices or to take unsupported risks.

Every community must chart its own path, but the journey often starts with collaboration and a vision of what can be accomplished if public and private players work together.