Many, many times businesspeople have told me how frustrating it is that our parochialism in Northeast Wisconsin prevents our cities from showing up on the national map.
Sure, Green Bay sometimes appears along with Madison and Milwaukee, thanks in no small part to the Packers. But Appleton – not to mention the dozen or so communities that make up the Fox Cities region – rarely appears.
Add to that the fact that our two largest airports have names that mean little to outsiders – Austin Straubel International Airport (GB) and the Outagamie County Regional Airport (ATW) – and how can you expect an outsider to find their way here, much less consider it as a prime spot to start or grow a business?
We’ve got to change this. After Jay Garner of Garner & Associates was commissioned by the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce last year and did a comprehensive study about our economic development challenges, this particular issue came up time and again.
Shannon Full, president of the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce since last January, has embraced the mission to put the area on the map. Think of it as a Seussical “Horton Hears a Who” shout-out: “We are here! We are here!”
In this month’s cover story by MaryBeth Matzek (page 22), Full speaks emphatically about the need to collaborate and draw new business here. When I interviewed her for the accompanying video, she said flat out that although she grew up in Wisconsin, when she was recruited to come here from her job as president of the Cedar Rapids, Iowa chamber, “I had no idea where the Fox Cities was.”
It’s frustrating, because collectively the 18 municipalities that make up what we call the Fox Cities represent about three times the population – 230,000 – than the 73,243 reported by the 2010 census for Appleton. And while Green Bay boasts a population of 104,000, the Greater Green Bay MSA, with a population of about 306,000, represents 14 communities.
Certainly every large city is surrounded by suburbs with populations not added into its population. But there is something to be said for having fewer municipalities and the potential cost savings of sharing services across a broader population.
Countless studies have identified a probable relationship between Wisconsin’s numerous local governments and its heavy property tax burden. In a state with 5.6 million people, we have more than 3,000 government units.
To put that in perspective, the state of New York (not a great example of bureaucratic efficiency) governs about 19.3 million people with 3,413 governmental entities. The greater London area, with 7.5 million people, has a mere 34 government entities and greater Toronto, with 2.6 million people, has only 28.
This issue was in the news last month during a conference at Marquette University that explored the future of Milwaukee as part of an emerging megacity wrapping around the southern shore of Lake Michigan, encompassing Chicago and Gary, Ind. Such a megacity would draw globally-minded entrepreneurs, according to a report released in March by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a global economic think tank based in Paris.
But the OECD indicated that “extreme fragmentation” of local governments in the Chicago-Milwaukee area stand in the way of such a megacity flourishing. “… the Tri-State Region must cooperate more closely to promote innovation-driven economic development and job creation.”
Obviously, consolidating services – much less, merging governments – is tricky business. So, too, is pooling the funds required to promote a region to the world.
These are among the challenges the Fox Cities Chamber has identified, and Full is fired up to take them on. The Fox Cities Chamber plans to tackle these issues on a local level, in partnership with New North, Inc. regionally. It’s up to us, as business owners, to prepare to do our part.