New North Inc. has largely met its initial task of developing a regional economic brand, but it has also made impressive strides in creating strategic alignment with local economic development groups in the region.
Story by Rick Berg
When Jerry Murphy took the reins as New North Inc.’s first executive director in January 2006, he and the organization’s board of directors knew the first order of business was to develop a brand identity that would define northeast Wisconsin as a viable and cohesive economic region. Now entering its 10th year of existence, most would say the organization can lay claim to a high degree of success.
Just as challenging was the task of bringing together a diverse assortment of more than a dozen local economic development organizations – ranging from rural areas like Florence County to urban settings like Green Bay and the Fox Cities. Owing to the understandable differences in priorities and agendas in each locale, regional collaboration remains a work in progress. However, most agree progress is real and definable.
Sam Perlman, economic development manager for the Door County Economic Development Corp., said organizations like his were unsure when New North launched how it would impact their work, but concerns have faded over the past decade.
“We provide the boots on the ground, so to speak, for day-to-day economic development activities, so we wanted to make sure there were clearly defined roles for what we do and what New North would do,” Perlman said. “That’s worked out well, but it continues to be a challenge that we work on.”
“We’re very close,” Murphy said.
“I would say we’re almost there, and in some ways we are there,” said David Thiel, executive director of Waupaca County Economic Development Corp.
As an example, Thiel points to a new initiative – Global New North – created to help local economic development organizations leverage global trade opportunities for their business stakeholders.
Global New North evolved out of a $200,000 regional study, partially funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The initiative is designed to spur more global trade in the region – especially among businesses with the capability of working globally, but who may lack the resources and expertise to do so.
“The next step is to start educating businesses and economic development professionals on global trade,” Thiel said. “It’s definitely more complicated than doing business domestically and requires more resources.”
Finding common ground
Thiel also noted the challenge of coordinating efforts between a regional player such as New North and local organizations like Waupaca’s is understandable. It’s a challenge he and his colleagues in the Northeast Wisconsin Regional Economic Partnership (NEWREP) have faced since that group was formed in 2002.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” said Thiel. “It wasn’t just New North; it was NEWREP also. We’re all in separate organizations, paid by those organizations to represent their interests. But we also knew we had to come together to do some things for the greater good to benefit us all.”
That shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, according to Murphy.
“It shouldn’t be that earth-shattering to understand that local economic development organizations are not inherently mission-driven to act collectively,” Murphy said. “The more local an entity is, the more local their focus is going to be. They’re going to be focused on issues, challenges and opportunities very specific to their communities. That’s not a criticism. That’s just the way it is.”
Perlman noted despite the local imperatives, economic development professionals in the region recognize the need for collaboration.
“NEWREP came out of an initiative from the U.S. Department of Commerce Technology Zone grant program, and even though that program is long gone, we’ve continued to look for ways to work together, because we recognize the value of working regionally,” Perlman said.
Rob Kleman, senior vice president for economic development at the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce, said collaboration is not simply a regional imperative and challenge.
“Economic development is never a single entity at any level,” Kleman said. “It’s always a collection of stakeholders, even at the local level, and those stakeholders don’t always have the same priorities. So we always have to find ways to identify common goals and work together.”
Buying into the brand
Urban areas like those on the Highway 41 Corridor have a relatively obvious need for regional collaboration and external marketing. With or without New North, they would be driven to attract new industry and talent to the region. That doesn’t mean the less urban counties have nothing to gain, Murphy said.
“Some economic development organizations in the New North specifically choose to not do a lot of external marketing. They take their limited resources and plow them into business retention and expansion services very oriented to those communities,” Murphy said.
“Door County, for example, has a very successful, blended, diversified economy based on tourism and manufacturing, so most of their work is focused on building strength in their existing business base and growing that as a strategy,” Murphy added. “There are lots of counties like that, and New North is in a position to represent the value proposition for those counties.”
Perlman agreed, noting “Door County is unique in how we do economic development. We rely much more on entrepreneurship and business retention. The business attraction we do is through marketing to our seasonal residents. For a variety of reasons, including logistics and environment, we’re not looking to attract the same kinds of companies as Manitowoc or Sheboygan or Brown County. We’re 45 minutes from an airport, 45 minutes from an interstate, 45 minutes from a rail line, and we don’t have the population radius to draw from for a workforce. “
Even so, Perlman added, “we still recognize the importance of the region. Fifty percent or more of our visitors come from within the state of Wisconsin. As the region succeeds, that directly impacts economic opportunities and economic development in Door County.”
Regardless of how actively some local organizations participate in New North activities, most have bought into the branding efforts, according to Murphy.
“I think the reason for that is that the brand was not something imposed by New North,” Murphy said. “It’s actually the other way around. The New North brand really comes out of the value stream that people in the region consider important – things like quality of life and a reliable workforce.”
To help local organizations promote the brand, New North creates printed and digital collaterals like its Business Locator Guide for distribution.
“We want to reinforce the value message and make sure we’re all singing from the same songbook,” Murphy said.
Landscape, scale and aligned strategies
Compared to local organizations, New North’s advantage in economic development is its broader landscape and its ability to scale projects much larger than would be possible on a local level, Murphy said.
“And by landscape I mean not only the real estate, but also the resources and assets of the region. Because of that broader landscape there are opportunities to scale and in most cases those opportunities are strategic,” Murphy said.
However, he added, “just having a larger landscape does not make for a strategy or an outcome. People have to be willing to work together and you have to have aligned strategies. It requires collaboration and partnership to be able to mutually leverage what others are doing. I think we’re getting very close to being very good at that.”
Murphy cited Wisconsin Wind Works, which New North launched in 2007, as one of the best examples of a scaled, strategic regional project. The organization now boasts nearly 300 wind energy supply chain members. New North has also coordinated other regional industry initiatives, including a defense industry diversification initiative and a shipbuilding industry cluster.
“All of that affords us an opportunity to add scale and leverage resources that already exist,” Murphy said.
“Individual communities and businesses have their own agendas and that’s fine. That’s practical and pragmatic,” Murphy said. “But what you find is that at the state level (with Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.), the regional level and the local level you’re going to find consistently aligned objectives. You’ll have a business development track, an entrepreneurial track, some version of a talent track. So, the alignment is already there, but the resources may not yet be connected.”
Communication is the key
Perlman said the relationship between local economic development groups, NEWREP, the New North and WEDC has worked because everyone has focused on maintaining communication.
“We have a lot of active engagement between the organizations,” Perlman said. “We have active mutual representation on the boards for New North and NEWREP and we have a New North/NEWREP executive group that meets on a regular basis to make sure everyone is on the same page. The idea is to make sure communication channels are maintained, that communication protocols are followed, and that information flows appropriately in all directions – from the local level up and from the WEDC down through New North to the local level. We’ve worked hard at that and we continue to work at it.”
Kleman agreed. “The challenge and the opportunity we have is that we have all these major players in economic development and they all have a major role to play. To capitalize on the strengths we all have, we have to continue to enhance communication so everyone is headed in the same direction and that we understand what the roles are. For the most part we’ve been able to accomplish that, and that’s part of the reason northeast Wisconsin is such a thriving region.”
A lifetime of work
“The New North is not just a thumbtack on a map,” Murphy said. “It’s an identity, and that takes a lot of time and work. For the name of New North to become as potent as, say, Silicon Valley or the North Carolina Research Triangle will take a lifetime of work to get to that level of awareness. But in the interim, there’s a lot of work that continues to be done.”
“It has taken some time for all of us in NEWREP and the New North to get on the same page,” Thiel said. “It takes some time to build trust, but I think we’ve gotten to the point where we do trust each other and we believe in doing things together to build the region as a whole. It might seem weird that it took 10 years to get there, but that is the nature of human beings.”
Rick Berg is a freelance writer and editor based in Green Bay.