WisBusiness: Regional Cooperation Key to Growth, Denver Development Pro Says

By Brian E. Clark


FITCHBURG – For counties, towns and cities surrounding Madison to grow their economies in a “sane, rational and compatible” manner, the best strategy is to work regionally and collaboratively.

Moreover, communities that want to compete in the global economy must cooperate instead of fight each other, said Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.

Clark spoke Tuesday afternoon to economic development professionals in Fitchburg City Hall in a Collaboration Council-sponsored meeting. He was in Milwaukee on Monday to talk to leaders of that region.

Clark said Madison is known throughout the country because of UW-Madison and its research prowess. Like the city of Boulder and the University of Colorado, it produces spin-out companies that evolve and sometimes move to other cities that offer them room to grow.

Rather than fight that process, communities in the region should work together to keep firms here so that the whole area can move forward, he said.

“It really is true that a rising tide lifts all boats,” said Clark, who said regional economic development efforts must be ongoing. The Collaboration Council, which has raised $1 million, is attempting to get that effort off the ground in the Capital Region.

“Madison has a great brand,” he said. “You should work to develop that just as we did with the Denver theme.”

Jennifer Alexander, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, said the council will begin its efforts with Dane County and then move out.

“Our strategy is to first grow our own jobs and companies, rather than recruit firms to come here,” she said, pledging to work with surrounding communities and counties to “grow the culture of regionalism.”

In his occasionally witty talk, Clark told how difficult it was for cities, small towns, counties and other groups in the Denver area to work together because they had a long history of fighting each other.

Nor was it uncommon for cities in Colorado to try to openly steal companies and retail businesses from each other.

But in the end, they did learn to cooperate and within nine years of a 1980s recession – which sparked the cooperation – the region had more than 200,000 new jobs, a huge new airport, two new sports stadia and solid funding for arts and cultural programs. In addition, great progress had been made toward cleaning up the Denver area’s poor air quality, which had hung over the city like a dirty brown blanket.

Metro Denver now includes nine counties and scores of communities. Not only does it work to promote job creation in the area and bring new firms to the region, but it also worked successfully to pass a mass transit initiative.

In addition, it worked against Colorado’s TABOR, which Clark called a “piece of trash” that resulted in deteriorating roads and reduced support for higher education that put his state in league with Mississippi. Though the organization favors growth, it supported a successful effort to limit Denver’s urban boundary – in part to control infrastructure costs. The group does not, however, endorse candidates.

Clark said Metro Denver has a budget of $3 million and serves a region with roughly 3.3 million people. Twenty percent of the budget goes for staff, while 80 percent is used for programs, marketing and other efforts.

One of the keys to the organization’s success, he said, is to use existing economic development groups, get them to cooperate in their efforts and to follow a code of ethics that reinforces collaboration.

“The cities and counties are our ground troops,” he said. “But we are the servants, not the masters. We lead by herding, not by commanding.”

One sign of Metro Denver’s success, he said with a wry smile, is that members have so bought into its effort that he has been accused of brainwashing.

“People in our region truly believe that if they can’t get a company to locate in their own community, they still want it to come to the area,” he said.

That is especially remarkable, he noted, because at the organization’s first gathering, officials were so suspicious of each other that they almost no conversation. Worse, the economy in the late 1980s was in the dumps, downtown Denver had a vacancy rate of 31 percent and more people were leaving the state than entering.

“But we built on a great brand, found a lot we could agree on and in the process have made significant progress,” he said modestly.