Thursday, April 15, 2010

Maybe Madison's not such a bad place for business after all.

Despite low unemployment, a high standard of living, giant cranes operating non-stop even in a recession, and a constantly growing population (which can also bring problems, but that's a different blog post), Madison is constantly being scolded as a bad place to do business, or a city that drives away business. Every time a company decides to move elsewhere - whether it's Epic wanting a gazillion acres and tax breaks or Famous Footwear moving to the home of its new corporate parent - the Madison Chamber of Commerce or Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce wring their hands and issue a press release about how we need to be nicer to corporate types.

I am not arguing that we should actively chase away employers, but there can be drawbacks to bending over backwards too. For one thing, when you bend over backwards, you have a hard time seeing what is in front of you. This is the case for Verona, who somehow couldn't foresee that building a huge corporate campus on the far west side of it's city might mean traffic congestion on Hwy M. Now they beg the Transportation Planning Board (TPB) - the entity that doles out federal transportation funding - to give them the money to widen Hwy M. However, this project in line behind all the other big road projects that others feel are essential, and Hwy M to Verona likely will come up for funding in 2013 at the earliest.

When asked how the road could be done sooner, the TPB Director, showing candor that is all too rare when dealing with costs for road expansion, told the Verona folks, "Pay for it yourself." Shock, horror, disbelief! What? Pay for a road yourselves? How is that possible?

A month later, at the regular TPB meeting (which I sat on for six years), the Verona representative again pleaded his case. Another board member, who although he represents an area outside Madison is much more astute about transportation funding than many, innocently asked, "Well, you must have assessed impact fees to Epic for the increase in traffic caused by their new campus, right?  That would be a pool of money to use for this road." Dead silence from the Verona rep. His mouth opened and closed like a fish gasping for air.

I had a hard time not falling off my seat laughing. Of course, Verona didn't assess impact fees for the expected increase in traffic! They were doing everything they could to hand Epic executives freebies, so they could crow about stealing this company from big, bad Madison. Now they are stuck with the impacts, and the costs.

But these stories never get told. We only hear how Madison chased poor Epic out of town.

And we never hear about businesses that decide to locate here, or even come home again. Today there was a tiny piece about Spectrum Brands returning it's corporate headquarters to Madison. Of course, this little piece is buried and will never be waved around at a Council meeting as a counterargument to the mantra that Madison can only lose businesses. No, we don't hear those stories.

[Update: Since I didn't get a chance to post this morning, the afternoon papers and TV news did actually do stories about Spectrum's return to Madison. However, in the story, Sean Robbins, Executive VP at Thrive sounded he was fighting to restrain any enthusiasm, by calling the development, "reassuring."]

We also don't hear much about the start-ups that are constantly bubbling up around town. The University Research Park and the MG&E Incubator, among other places, are wondrous places for little businesses that come into being because of two things we have in abundance in Madison: smarts and innovation. The UW is a major research institution, and many companies have spun off of that research. They start and grow right under our noses. Others leave the academic and research life behind and go a different direction in life, but they too often start businesses that grow and thrive.

Madison is a great place to live. We know this in our hearts, and we see the reviews and top ten rankings all the time. People want to build a life here, and that's good for business. I'm not sure why the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce is always so determined to tear down the city as a good place to locate. Isn't part of their job to attract business? Or do they exist only to push for less regulation?