Report: Helping WEDC a better option than dramatic overhaul

Proposals to shake up WEDC “could be counter-productive to the significant operational improvements” the agency has already made, an outside consultant report found.

Instead, the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness report lists as its top recommendation that stakeholders should recognize the state’s “best option is to help WEDC function effectively.”

“WEDC has made significant progress in addressing operational issues previously identified,” the report found. “Calls for another reorganization of the state economic development effort distract attention from the mission of helping Wisconsin businesses and communities prosper and could potentially re-create the very conditions that led to past mistakes.”

A draft of the report, presented to WEDC’s board of directors Thursday in Appleton, follows calls from Dems to scrap the agency. They have said the agency’s brand is “damaged beyond repair” and want to replace it with a hybrid agency focused on “family-supporting jobs.” Assembly GOP leaders have also hinted they’re open to looking at proposals that would change WEDC.

Mark Hogan, who started as WEDC’s CEO in October, said the CREC recommendations show the agency should continue under its current structure.

“My view is making change for the sake of change is rarely, if ever, productive,” Hogan said. “And in the case of WEDC, such a move would detract from the great many successes this organization has achieved in helping Wisconsin’s businesses grow and fulfill their goals of maintaining and creating family-supporting jobs.”

WEDC is paying less than $175,000 to CREC, which got the contract in June and interviewed WEDC management and staff members, key stakeholders in state government, the state’s business community and economic development officials in other states.

The report also found WEDC needs to better articulate its mission and partner with other state agencies and stakeholders to accomplish its goals.

And it called for an increase in WEDC staff. The consultants noted WEDC’s 108 full-time employee positions are “substantially below” the 350 positions at the agency’s predecessor, the Department of Commerce.

WEDC also needs to improve its data collection and reporting processes, pay closer attention to outcomes for its largest award recipients and focus on developing industry clusters over individual solutions for companies, according to the report.

A key to the discussion, the report found, is convincing the public that there’s more to economic development than the “exclusive focus on job creation that has dominated past conversations,” especially as Wisconsin’s unemployment rate continues hitting new lows.

WEDC and the public also need to move away from looking at individual company news as signs of success or failure, the report suggested. Calling the Oscar Mayer layoffs “beyond the state’s control” and the expansion at Oshkosh Corp. “extraordinarily rare,” CREC suggested WEDC’s focus should be on helping communities “make the economic transition.”

Wisconsin has a $268 billion economy, and WEDC’s awards won’t be able to significantly impact that number, the report said.

“Truly effective economic development is a process, not a series of single events or project ‘wins.’ … Economic development today must focus less on solving the problems of specific businesses through individual transactions and more on creating opportunities for clusters of clients, companies, and communities to compete in the private marketplace,” the report said.

See the report

— By Polo Rocha