When Brown Shoe announced it was locating its new headquarters in St. Louis, not Madison — and closing its Famous Footwear offices here — one reason cited was some $43 million in economic development incentives from the state of Missouri.
Wisconsin officials had also attempted to lure Brown Shoe, offering up free land and other perks if it would build its new headquarters here. Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Alexander even flew to St. Louis to give the pitch.
But rather than spending limited resources fighting each other for new jobs, Midwestern states must work together if they hope to compete in the new world economy, development experts say.
“A guy in China doesn’t care about the difference between Minnesota and Wisconsin and we shouldn’t either,” says Richard Longworth, author of “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.”
As a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune, Longworth traveled extensively and witnessed the changes in the world economy. The Midwest, he warns, is already way behind and losing more ground every day.
“I’m afraid it’s not a pleasant story,” Longworth told a group of local business leaders recently during a meeting of the Wisconsin Technology Council.
Longworth said cities like Madison, Chicago and Minneapolis are well-positioned to survive in a changing world. Not so for the rest of the region, which is losing population, jobs and its brightest young people to other environs.
“The Midwest is an archipelago of small industrial cities that are too far away from anything,” he said. “These cities will be left behind and there isn’t much we can do to bring them back.”
Detroit could serve as the poster child for the decaying Midwestern city, says Longworth. So could Akron, Milwaukee, Peoria, Toledo or Muncie.
“I was in Cleveland recently and you were barely aware anything was going on; it was a strange echoing place,” said Longworth, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and current fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The underlying issue is that three billion new workers have joined the world economy in the past 20 years as China, Russia, India and eastern Europe all embraced the free market economy. That is not going to change no matter how often politicians rail against free trade agreements or labor groups complain about jobs being outsourced, he notes.
“We’re very much at the start of the global era and so far most of the Midwest isn’t handling it very well,” said Longworth. “We’re in a state of denial and have forgotten how to be innovative, how to be entrepreneurs.”
Indeed, Longworth notes that the Midwest was once the center of both the industrial revolution and progressive political thinking. Chicago invented the skyscraper and Henry Ford invented modern manufacturing, Wisconsin invented workers compensation insurance and labor unions invented the weekend.
But today, individual states aren’t big enough or rich enough to compete on a global scale. A shift in thinking toward a more regional approach is crucial, agrees Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.
The council has coined the “I-Q Corridor” a 400-mile swath from Chicago to Minneapolis running through Milwaukee and Madison. That region taken as a whole has the economic strength to be a force in a world economy, Still says.
“It may seem like a long way from Chicago to the Twin Cities but it’s a shorter drive or flight than what separates San Diego from Silicon Valley,” he said.
Unfortunately, Longworth says that kind of regional thinking has yet to sink in with traditional institutions like government or universities. He levels particular criticism at the big land grant colleges of the Midwest for not collaborating and fighting turf wars for funding or professors.
“There is a concentration of intellectual firepower that could conquer the world,” he said. “The only problem is they are all competing and duplicating each other.”
Gilles Bousquet, dean of international studies at the UW-Madison, agrees that universities need to spread their wings and embrace the world economy.
“I was glad to see Madison listed as a global city (in the Longworth book) but we clearly need to be doing more of that,” he said.