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Winston: WHEDA aiming to grow its economic development mission

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Wyman Winston, head of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority since January, was trained as an architect. But he didn’t do design work for long.

That's because he figured out he was more interested in thinking about why some communities were doing well, while others were struggling. And figuring out what tools could be used to improve the overall economic health of a community.

He’s now in the right spot.

Winston said his agency oversees a $3.7 billion portfolio, with roughly $2 billion backing loans for single-family homes, another $700 million for multi-family and apartment developments and $400 million for economic development projects. Much of the money is used to guarantee loans that are originated by banks, he said.

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WHEDA has applied for $100 million in federal New Market tax credits for 2012, Winston said. He hopes to leverage that money to attract additional public and private sources, resulting in $1 billion in investments in the state over the next four years.

“We are going to look at how we are going to grow our lending,” he told WisBusiness.com in a recent interview. “In some cases, that lending will be in partnership with community banks and other banks like what we do now. But the New Market tax credits are a critical component.”

Winston said he doesn’t miss designing buildings or their components.

“Over time, I found that some of the problem-solving skills I had learned as an architect were applicable,” he said. “But I absolutely saw myself working in that space (housing and economic development) because it fit both my passion and interests.”

Winston soon moved to the Department of City Development in Milwaukee, then spent 14 years at WHEDA. He left Wisconsin a decade ago and worked in Atlanta and then Portland, Ore., working primarily on tax incremental financing (TIF) projects.

Unlike other agencies that have had some of their duties shuffled under the Walker administration, Winston said WHEDA’s responsibilities have remained unchanged.

Winston said he's working closely with Walker and other cabinet members to achieve the governor’s goal of gaining 250,000 jobs over the next four years.

“Because we have economic development in our name and do quite a bit of housing, it can have indirect impact on the construction and temporary employment areas,” he said.

Winston said he and WHEDA leaders spent the first part of the year looking at how the agency could assist under-served rural and urban markets that are often passed over even in the best of economic times.

“That’s an area that WHEDA has a long history of focusing on,” he said.

Agribusiness, food processing, manufacturing and metals are all areas in which Winston said Wisconsin has “unique advantages.”

“So we are looking at how we can assist those companies in our loans and investments that will translate into growing the companies and creating more jobs,” he said.

Winston said Wisconsin was not hit as hard by the current recession as some other states.

“But it still was disadvantaged because many companies that weathered the recession need capital to grow and it’s still hard to get capital,” he said. “So that is an area we are focusing.”

He said the agency hopes to use its housing development efforts to boost local economies. But Winston said investing in housing alone is not enough to help struggling communities.

“If I have learned anything coming out of the recession, it’s that until we see an improvement in wages and getting Wisconsinites getting back to work, it is going to be very difficult to see a completely healthy housing industry,” he said.

“The market that we are in now certainly suggests that we go back to the fundamentals and those fundamentals mean that consumers have good jobs and wages that can command the type of housing they wish for.”

Winston said since returning to WHEDA, he has run into family members of builders and developers he met decades ago.

“We don’t just lend in a void,” he said. “WHEDA is 39 years old, so we are seeing second and third generations of borrowers. Children of the first borrowers have come in for new loans or taken over old ones. And small operators 30 years ago have grown into regional builders.”

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