Quick: What puts Northeast Wisconsin on the map for anyone in the country – and the globe?
Most likely you said, “Green Bay,” thanks to the Green Bay Packers.
Now, sometimes you need an outsider to show you what might seem obvious to the rest of the world. When New North, Inc. and the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce brought the outspoken leader of the successful Charlotte USA Partnership here last month to talk about regional collaboration, we got an earful. Let’s just say Ronnie Bryant, president and CEO of the Charlotte organization, did not mince words.
“You’ve got an internationally-known brand” in Green Bay, Bryant said. “Why not use it? It’s free!”
One look around the roomful of business and community leaders and you could see a lot of mental head slapping.
Green Bay is, of course, the largest city in the region. To show people what Wisconsin looks like, we hold our hand up and point out that the city of Green Bay is the spot between your thumb and index finger. Those two fingers, down to about the first knuckle of your thumb, make up Northeast Wisconsin, branded as the New North.
Bryant challenged those in attendance to cut to the chase.
“From a geographical perspective, whomever I’m speaking with, they know where Charlotte USA is,” Bryant said. “I would ask you, ‘Where is New North?’ … If you come in to talk to me about your part of the country, you’re going to spend the first 15 minutes helping me figure out where you are. Wouldn’t it be nice, if it only took 3 minutes? Then you’ve got 27 minutes left to talk about why I should bring my business here.”
We like to think we’re unique, and in some ways, we are. The New North’s 1.2 million population is spread over 18 counties and 11,000 square miles. We have multiple population centers, from Greater Green Bay to the Fox Cities, from the Lakeshore to the Highway 41 Corridor and the many small cities scattered throughout.
In existence since the 1980s and one of the fastest growing regions of the country, Charlotte USA, by comparison, has 2.7 million people over 9,000 square miles, more than double the density. It has one dominant city at its core – which is much more typical of a regional marketing entity. But, as Bryant explained, working with 12 counties across two states (North Carolina and South Carolina), it has its own unique challenges.
What we have going for us in the New North region is that we have begun working together, Bryant said. Still, we must erase the borders between municipalities and abolish the parochialism that prevents us from moving forward.
After his talk, several current and past members of the New North, Inc. board of directors said much of what Bryant said has long since been on their radar screens. Regional collaboration is a sensitive business, they said. Indeed, it seems they have been keenly in tune with one of the keys to regional collaboration, as Bryant identified: Allowing ideas to bubble up rather than be dictated from the top down.
Bryant urged regional leaders to pick up the pace.
“Things do not just happen – you have to make them happen,” he said. “Business development activity makes a difference in the lives of the people in this community and in communities like this around the world. There is nothing more fulfilling than to drive by a once empty industrial site seeing a parking lot full of cars, knowing that those people are working because of your efforts.”
Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce President Shannon Full said Bryant plans to return this fall for follow-up conversations. No doubt, he’ll be checking to see if we’ve made any progress.