WisBusiness.com: Budget-strapped Forward Wisconsin Trying to Meet Gov.’s Funding Challenge and Sell the State

By Brian E. Clark

At a time when most state agencies are facing cuts of 10 percent, Forward Wisconsin could see its budget tripled.

Or not.

It all depends on how much money members of the business community will pony up to fund the quasi-public agency that markets the Badger State.  If  they pitch in $2 million, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle has promised he will add another $1 million.

If less is raised, the state’s portion will be diminished. Then, of course, the Legislature will have its say.

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, is a member of the Joint Finance Committee. With a $1.6 billion deficit looming in the upcoming budget cycle, she said the Legislature will be looking to make cuts. 

“We will wait to see what the governor does,” she said. “And while business  development is important to our future, we need to be performance oriented. I’d say Forward Wisconsin is going to have a rough go.”

Currently, the state’s contribution to Forward Wisconsin is $320,000 a year for the 2003-2005 budget. Some 80 businesses kicked in the remainder of its 2003-2004 fiscal year budget of $840,000.

That’s still a decline, however, from the $1 million budget Forward Wisconsin had in 1984, the year it was created. Figure in inflation, and the budget is down significantly.

Doyle, who is the titular chairman of Forward Wisconsin, threw down the gauntlet earlier this fall at the nonprofit agency’s 20th birthday party, when he pledged his support for the enterprise and  introduced its new leader, former Milwaukee Brewers attorney Pepi Randolph.

Rather than dismantle Forward Wisconsin, Doyle said he expects it to “play an increasing role in growing Wisconsin’s economy by communicating Wisconsin’s business advantages to the world.”

No one would dispute that the past few years have been tough for Forward Wisconsin. It weathered several public relations storms, including one which tied former president Wayne Harris to a free boat from Mercury Marine for former Gov. Scott McCallum.

That bad publicity — along with a $3.2 billion budget deficit — led to the governor lopping $95,000 from the agency’s current budget.  Then, to rub salt in the wound, the Legislature cut another $60,000.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” said Randolph in a recent interview at his Commerce Department office.

“But I’m excited about this challenge and I think we can rally support for our agency and our mission to educate decision-makers outside the state about the positive benefits of living, working, playing and doing business in Wisconsin.”

Jerry Franke, vice chairman of the Forward Wisconsin board of directors, said the state needs to be marketed aggressively.

“Wisconsin is a product,” said Franke, president of WISPARK LLC in Milwaukee. “And all products need to be sold.”  WISPARK is a real estate development company and a subsidiary of Wisconsin Energy Corp.

“But we could do more with Forward Wisconsin,” he said. “We’ve marched in placed and fallen behind since 1984. Our budget is stretched about as thin s we can go.

“I think we can raise more money from the private sector. I would want those dollars used for spreading the message through a lean organization.”

Jeff Bartell, a partner at the Quarles & Brady law firm in Madison, called Forward Wisconsin one of the “premier state business development organizations, even though we have much less money than many cities.”

Buffalo, N.Y.or example, gives its marketing arm $5 million annually. And Jacksonville, Fla, invests $3.5 million to sell itself.

“Gov. Doyle has challenged us to raise more private funds,” said Bartell, who is Forward Wisconsin’s treasurer.

“We have accepted that challenge,” he said. “I think we can do it,and Pepi is the guy to lead that effort.”

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, said it is wrong to think his group could take over Forward Wisconsin’s task.The Council receives about $250,000 a year from the state

“Sometimes people wrongly compare the two organizations,” Still said.

“But we are pretty much honed in on technology and entrepreneurship and trying to increase the supply of investment capital within the state.

“We also were created to be the science and technology advisers to the governor and the Legislature and to have a catalyst role” he said.

“Forward Wisconsin’s mission is to pitch the state outside our borders to attract manufacturing, tourism, even agricultural businesses,” he said. “That is very much outside our mission.”

Randolph, who looks a decade younger than his 43 years, grew up in Milwaukee and played baseball at UW-Madison.

A second baseman, he aspired to play in the big leagues. But he wasn’t good enough to be drafted and he wasn’t much interested in playing minor league ball.

Instead, he went to work for Procter & Gamble and later Johnson and Johnson before entering law school at UW-Madison. It was there met his wife, Laura Arbuckle, a fellow lawyer who now works for the Department of Administration. 
The couple has three boys under 10.

In 1991, the Milwaukee Brewers hired Randolph as an assistant general counsel. He kept that job until 2003, working on marketing, promotions and suite agreements. He also lobbied at the statehouse to get the new stadium built.

He worked for a short time for M&I Bank in Milwaukee before Commerce Department Secretary Cory Nettles and Doyle persuaded him to run Forward Wisconsin.

“I think I have a good background for selling the state,” Randolph said. “I could have gone elsewhere, but I love Wisconsin. I want our state to prosper.”

Randolph said he wants to lure as many businesses as he can from Illinois and Minnesota as he can to the Badger State.

And on a recent visit to the Twin Cities, he and other agency officials met with more than 40 Minnesota companies to laud Wisconsin’s advantages.

They used a study from the National Association of Industrial and Properties that said a manufacturing company with a 70,000 square-foot building in Wisconsin would pay about half the Minnesota property tax rate. Worker compensation rates and corporate income tax rates are also lower in Wisconsin, the study said.

Randolph acknowledged that Wisconsin’s power rates are rising compared to midwestern neighbors, but said Wisconsin is not difficult to sell because of its high quality of life, its schools and universities and its thriving arts scene.

Still, he said, Wisconsin wants its neighboring states to do well. He just wants Wisconsin to do better.
Though he is aware that some question the need for Forward Wisconsin’s existence, he said a recent meeting in New Orleans convinced him he’s in the right spot.

“I guy I met there said he had helped a life science company expand in Illinois and New York,” Randolph said.

“I proceeded to tell him about Wisconsin, our universities, our life science strength and why this would be a good place to relocate, too.

“He said Wisconsin had never been on his radar,” Randolph said. “To me, that’s why we need Forward Wisconsin. To sell the state to guys like that.”

The key, he said, will be to get more businesses to support the agency.

“The economy is improving, so that should make raising funds easier,” he said.

“I tell them attracting more businesses to the state benefits everyone and that a rising tide raises all ships,” he said. “I think anyone can understand that.”
See the Sept. 17, 2004 announcement of Randolph’s appointment: http://www.wispolitics.com/index.iml?Article=23740
See more about branding Wisconsin on the WisBusiness.com branding page: http://wisbusiness.com/index.iml?Content=92