Monday, August 23, 2010

The Trouble With Madison

No secret, Richard Florida is bullish on college towns. Such places have weathered the recession well and are poised to accelerate into the future. At the center of these economic development success stories are the universities, the engines of regional job growth. Except, it doesn't quite work out that way. Via propositions press (a post worth reading), the struggles in Madison (Wisconsin):

"I think (Cooley) has fallen into the same trap that most economic development professionals do of chasing the ‘big one' — that a big development or company location will solve our problems," says east-side Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway. "Bringing in new companies is important, yes. But Madison shouldn't join the race to the bottom to attract them."

Cooley invites the criticism, however, and sees his role as getting the city serious about growing its private-sector economy. He says that is crucial if Madison hopes to keep offering the quality of life that has earned it top marks from a variety of sources as a great place to live, work and raise a family.

"I was lunching the other day with (UW System President) Kevin Reilly, and I told him we need to come up with 8,000 to 10,000 new jobs each year for the 40,000 grads he keeps turning out," says Cooley. "Otherwise, it's a crappy return on our investment if you don't have any way to support these kids and get them to stay here."

Madison has a jobs creation problem, which some blame on the paucity of local venture capital. I find most college towns (particularly those that double as state capitals) as under-performers. The referenced article makes that exact point:

But while the UW continues to churn out the Ph.Ds, that scenario hasn't translated into thousands of new high-paying jobs. Even the much-touted biotech revolution has arguably fallen short on the job-creation front, with critics calling it a fad that could fade if investment dollars slow and marketable products fail to materialize.

"The attitude in Madison has been that we don't need to really do anything, we're just happy to trade among ourselves," says Tim Cooley, the first economic development director in city history. "But the world isn't that way anymore. We need to create opportunities throughout the strata of our economy. Right now, all we're doing is exporting brains."

While I appreciate that Cooley is demanding that Madison aim higher and try harder, I'm not buying what he is selling. I'm bullish on towns and gowns because they export brains. I do agree that Madison is complacent and lazy (like many migration boomtowns). I disagree that brain drain is a liability. Cooley is old school economic development.

I can't think of any college town that is trying to benefit from the outmigration of talent. Kids will always leave the region even with robust job creation. Tagging them as a lost return on investment is a crappy way to look at geographic mobility.

So Madison will continue down the road most traveled, content to bask in the media glow of place rankings. Life is good enough to discourage innovative thinking. I'm sure in-the-box Madison will continue to do just fine.


Unknown said...

It's strange that no college town is working to benefit from brain drain. I live in Madison and routinely run into people who left after graduation, got married, then came back to settle down. Beyond that, I know some who left, but remember Madison fondly. That dovetails into what you've talked about.

Also to do with Madison, the first mile of East Washington Avenue, the 6 lane boulevard that runs through the whole of the east side, is very underdeveloped. The city and state recently finished a reconstruction of it and did a great job. Yet the city hasn't done anything to promote the area. It's lined with empty buildings and car lots. Compare that with Milwaukee who cleaned up the Menomonee Valley and brought jobs in.

Madison is pretty complacent.

Jim Russell said...


Thanks for your comments. I, too, am surprised that no college town has sought to better leverage outmigration. I shouldn't use the term "brain drain" because it isn't the case for Madison and other like cities. Madison has plenty of talent. In that regard, it is a lot like Boston.