I’ve always been curious. When I was 11 years old I became an entrepreneur and owned my own paper route in Green Bay. I discovered a lot about people and the behaviors of people, which gave me a curiosity about why things worked the way they did.
As I did consulting and teaching over the years and eventually as I founded NorthStar Economics, that curiosity has grown. Why is it that certain things happen, why do people do this or that and how does it play out from their pocketbooks into the marketplace?
I started NorthStar in 2000, and began to look at what was happening in Wisconsin in particular and the Midwest more generally. It fascinated me about what we were doing – and what we weren’t doing. What we weren’t doing was thinking ahead in terms of this economy increasingly being a brainpower economy and how that is important to manufacturing and retail and research and higher education.
Dennis Winters and I were the authors of the New North study. Cheryl Welch of Fox Valley Workforce Development asked us to do an environmental scan to tell us what’s happening because they were trying to figure out how to direct our labor training money. Jim Golembeski from the Bay Area Workforce Development Board said that wouldn’t make any sense unless we added that area. We put together this large steering committee and I thought, this is kind of cool, we’re going to do this entire corridor of the state.
When we sat down with our client, they said we really need a strategy to go forward. From that came the Economic Opportunity Study – looking at the opportunities that have market forces behind them. In some ways, New North was a complete accident. We started in one place, and it ended up heading in the direction that became the pattern for other regions of Wisconsin and outside the state. What was great about New North was there was implementation. It took people and leadership to move that forward.
UW-Green Bay is where I started my teaching career in 1969; I had retired from the university system in 2000. I was asked by Kevin Reilly to come in as interim chancellor at UW-Green Bay (in 2008). I felt I still had that commitment to growing that institution, as I did to UW-Oshkosh for 18 years after Green Bay, to building higher education in this region. We started an environmental management business institute, and we started an innovation and entrepreneurship institute, both of which I think can move forward very nicely and help in the region.
Toward the end of my tenure, in April this year, I was chatting with some students and one of them said, “What do you know about incorporating in Dubai?” There’s a growing recognition of students that there’s a global economy. Wherever their future lies – even if they stay in Wisconsin – it’s going to be important to be globally oriented.
The United States is now about a third of the world economy, it used to be a half, and we will find a day not too soon that we’re a quarter. There is no need to be fearful of it. We need to go after it.
I think we’re getting at the point where we’re seeing opportunities like the wind energy cluster, or alternative energy based on cellulosic ethanol; these things are beginning to emerge. It turns out that the upper half of Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan has probably the finest hardwood stand in North America. This is really a unique asset.
We launched this study in October of 2004, so New North is only five years old. If you look at the Research Triangle in North Carolina, that’s been going on for over 50 years. We’ve come a long way in five years. I have a bias in this but I really believe that the New North region is one of the premier regional efforts in the whole country. It’s not perfect, but we’ve come a long, long way.