WisBusiness: Forward Wisconsin’s future uncertain

By Brian E. Clark

The governor and his Commerce secretary are saying little about the future of Forward Wisconsin, now that the president of the state’s 20-year-old private-public economic development arm has decided to leave.

Pepi Randolph, an attorney who has been head of Forward Wisconsin for two-and-one-half years, will become national vice president of sales and marketing for the Potawatomi Business Development Corp. starting April 1. The corporation handles investments for the Forest County Potawatomi tribe, which runs Milwaukee’s the Potawatomi Bingo and Casino in Milwaukee.

Tony Hozeny, a spokesman for Commerce Secretary Mary Burke, said the Forward board of directors will meet Feb. 16. “Beyond that, we have no comment,” he said.

Matt Canter, a spokesman for Gov. Jim Doyle, would only say that Doyle is “looking at a number of ways to improve targeted business improvement efforts.

“As part of the budgeting process, he is looking at funding different entities,” Canter said.

Jerry Franke, president of Wispark LLC and vice chairman of the Forward board, was reluctant to discuss the future of Forward, which is funded by both the state and private businesses.

“It’s premature for me to say anything about what will happen with Forward until after the board meets on Feb. 16,” he said. “We’ll have to discuss it with our board, Secretary Burke and the governor.”

Randolph, 45, said he will stay at Forward through the end of March. He called his tenure at the head of Forward “fruitful.”

“I’ve enjoyed it,” said Randolph, who worked for the Milwaukee Brewers for 13 years before joining Forward. “I didn’t have an economic development background when I took this job selling Wisconsin, so I can say I’ve learned a lot.

“I also appreciated the support of the governor and the two commerce secretaries I served under,” he added.

But he said it was “a little disheartening that we didn’t get more support from the Legislature,” which funded Forward to the tune of $320,000 a year. It receives another $480,000 a year from business funding, Randolph said. Forward had hoped to get $500,000 annually in the last budget cycle, but that figure was cut.

When Forward was founded 20 years ago, Randolph noted, the Legislature funded it to the tune of $500,000 a year.

Randolph also discounted speculation that he was pushed out of his job.

“No, I was pulled out with a great opportunity that came my way,” he said. “I hope to use the same skills that I brought to Forward, communicating with people, building and strengthening relationships.”

Randolph also said he was unaware of any plans to disband Forward.

“I haven’t heard that,” he said. “And I think it would be a mistake. I know there are other regional economic development groups out there now such as the Milwaukee 7 and New North, but I believe they should be able to work well with Forward to sell Wisconsin.”

Randolph acknowledged that it sometimes hard to quantify the success of Forward’s marketing efforts.

“We aren’t going to get the big Honda plants, but we need organizations out there like Forward telling people around the country that Wisconsin is a great place to do business and that it’s more than the Packers, beer and cheese because a lot of people still believe that’s all we are about.”

Randolph said he told countless executives in his travels to conventions and meetings about the many reasons to locate in the Badger state, the state’s burgeoning life-science industry and the cutting-edge research coming from UW-Madison.

“This isn’t like when I sold soap and I could tell a grocer that if he bought a pallet of Tide and sold it for a certain price, he would make so much money,” Randolph said.

“You can’t do that with Forward, but I still think it’s a great investment for the state,” he said.