By Tom Still

MADISON – Virtually all rankings are subjective. If you don’t believe that, just ask Division 1 college football coaches whose teams don’t get invited to a national championship bowl game.

When it comes to ranking which cities, states and regions are among the nation’s leaders in technology development, the game may be a bit more scientific, but there are still plenty of judgment calls. It boils down to the educated opinions of a relative handful of people, most of them editors of national trade magazines or researchers at prominent “think tanks.”

That’s why business leaders and politicians shouldn’t get too upset when a national ranking doesn’t include Wisconsin – or too excited when another rating places the Badger state somewhere near the top. No single ranking is a deal-sealer or a deal-killer. However, the collective weight of such rankings can reflect a pattern.

For Wisconsin of late, the pattern has been mostly encouraging.

Inc. magazine recently ranked 274 U.S. metropolitan areas as places to do business, and Wisconsin was something of a rose among the prairie flowers. Green Bay placed fourth overall, La Crosse 15th, Madison 38th and Milwaukee – for all its bad press – was 66th, up more than 100 notches. That gave Wisconsin three cities in the top 40, more than the rest of the Midwest, from Ohio to the Dakotas, combined.

Urban scholar and author Joel Kotkin, who wrote the Inc. article, gave Wisconsin good marks for creating jobs, for having an increasingly diverse economy, and for having “the premier entrepreneurial economy in the Midwest.”

Kotkin, who will speak June 8th at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee, thinks certain cities and states are well positioned to pull ahead in the “knowledge-based economy” of the 21st century. And he’s not alone in believing Wisconsin is among those states. A year ago, Forbes magazine ranked Madison as the best city in the country for business and careers, and also gave good marks to other Wisconsin cities (notably, Green Bay, La Crosse, Appleton and Milwaukee).

Over time, other rankings from magazines ranging from Money to Chemical Engineering have given Wisconsin strong marks. But some other surveys continue to place Wisconsin near the bottom of the entrepreneurial heap. It may take decades, for example, before the California-based Milken Institute even notices that Wisconsin is more than filler space between Illinois and Minnesota. Entrepreneur magazine was not overwhelmed with the entrepreneurial programs at the UW-Madison in its April 2005 edition, and several surveys show the state ranks in the bottom third when it comes to creating new companies.

But other surveys indicate Wisconsin is a state on the rise. Small Times, which covers nanotechnology and microtechnology, listed Wisconsin among six “states to watch” outside its top 10. Six Wisconsin cities scored well in a “financial fitness” ranking by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. And several surveys, including one by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, show per capita incomes in Wisconsin are rising faster than the 50-state average.

Rankings alone don’t pay the bills. Whether the state is rated high or low, it must continue to hold down taxes, reduce regulation, support great schools and invite new companies to take root here. However, the more people elsewhere notice Wisconsin is doing the right things, the easier it will become to establish the state’s reputation as good place to do business.

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