By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – At the upcoming Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, most speakers and panelists will focus on the skills, connections and tactics necessary for emerging companies. One discussion will drill into a larger question tied to the overall outlook: Is the Midwest a good place for young companies or not?

A breakout session on Tuesday, “Rust Belt renaissance: How the Midwest is being reborn,” will examine trends and research that suggest the nation’s heartland is building a stronger, more diverse economic base through strategies that leverage technology and talent and well as rich legacies in agriculture, manufacturing and higher education.

It’s one of more than 15 features that will attract 500 or more people to Union South on the UW-Madison campus for the two-day conference.

No region of the United States was hit harder by the recession that began in earnest 10 years ago than the Midwest. Unemployment soared, factories shuttered and survival was the order of the day. Crisis spawned innovation, however, as traditional industries modernized and new industries and companies emerged to take the place of those that didn’t make the cut.

Several national publications of late have focused on renewed luster in the Rust Belt.

In December 2017, the Brookings Institution examined a core Midwestern asset – higher education – as a driver of economic activity. It noted that 20 of the world’s top 200 universities are in the Rust Belt, roughly defined as ranging from western New York to St. Louis, Mo., and they’re contributing to the economies around them.

“Research and learning institutions have been major contributors to the economic transformation and revival of many of the region’s major metro areas,” wrote John C. Austin of Brookings, who listed Madison as one example.

A New York Times column from May 1, headlined “Lessons from Rust Belt cities that kept their sheen,” examined why some cities and regions have fought back from decline and others have not. Author Eduardo Porter cited smart development policies, higher education, workforce retention, the right investments and “sheer serendipity.”

Porter cited a study that charted population growth in 185 counties that were “industrial” in 1970 by percentage of jobs. Of the 185 counties, 70 lagged the U.S. growth rate and 115 exceeded it. Wisconsin had four lagging counties and nine that beat the average.

Authors Joel Kotkin and Michael Shires, writing in May for Forbes, noted the enduring value of manufacturing in states where it’s already rooted.

“Manufacturing contributions to the economy are far out of proportion to its shrinking share of employment,” they wrote, as measured by indirect jobs, economic output, wages and exports. “Over the past eight years manufacturing has bounced back strongly from the crater the sector fell in during the Great Recession, gaining 1.1 million jobs.”

Wisconsin has the nation’s second-highest percentage of manufacturing workers, according to the Center for Manufacturing Research of the National Association of Manufacturers. In order, top states as reported in March 2017 were Indiana (16.8 percent), Wisconsin (16.1 percent), Michigan (13.8 percent), Iowa (13.3 percent) and Alabama (13.3 percent).

Panelists at the Entrepreneurs’ Conference will examine the issue from the perspective of younger companies. They are investor Dan Malven of 4490 Ventures, Brian Waller of the Technology Association of Iowa and Kelly Armstrong of the Wisconsin Economic Development Association. Look for Malven to touch on investment winds that may be shifting toward the Midwest, Waller to discuss how tech is changing existing sectors while creating new opportunities, and Armstrong to discuss state initiatives.

It’s not all rosy, of course. Most states are battling an aging demographic, opioids that drag down many people, and economic prosperity is elusive in many rural areas. Still, it’s good to know the Rust Belt has moved from the “bust” status of the recession to becoming a potential “brain trust” for emerging companies.

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