A different kind of economic development

It wasn’t long ago that conversations about economic development were not about artists, small farms, micro-enterprises and independent people like me who make our living from home because we have the good fortune to have Internet service. (Note to my city friends – in the countryside broadband availability is a crapshoot. It depends heavily on whether you live on a ridge or in a valley or which utility serves your area. I’m one of the chosen few: I live on a ridge.)

Oftentimes the emphasis of business assistance programs seemed more of a trickle-down kind of thing: Give a big incentive to a large concern and they’ll build a factory or something and provide jobs. That’s not a bad thing in the eyes of many but to some it was the only way to do it.

My “Aha Moment” came a day after our regional economic development conference, when I realized that I had watched almost an entire slate of economic development awards go to small business entrepreneurs and those who help them be successful in their ventures. Times are changin’.

Small business is the bedrock of many local economies. Over a quarter of the workers in Iowa County where I live are self-employed and there is a much greater incidence in neighboring areas. My neighbors run their own businesses and I am self employed, too.

But a new job here or a new job there is not newsworthy and, in terms of what’s hot, we weren’t. At best we were ignored but for the most part we did not exist in the eyes of policy folks (self-employed folks are not included in unemployment rates and other commonly-used indicators).

I’ve worked in community development most of my career, and I realize paradigm shifts can develop slowly. But after the awards ceremony I started to think that much of what I had promoted for many years had arrived. The spotlight was on the little guy.

We’re seeing more and more economic development programs aiming to assist the entrepreneur. A good example is ArtsBuild – an economic development program of UW-Platteville intended to utilize the arts to foster economic development and grow the economy of the reab1gion by expanding existing and developing new art-related businesses. For this to happen, the university had to recognize that the arts were an untapped resource in the local economy – one worth investment.

When ArtsBuild started in 2004 the hope was that as many as 60 artists might be reached and some would participate. In a matter of weeks there were over 200 involved. The program now provides opportunities for education, marketing, partnerships and networking– the latter being critical for new businesspeople.

A newer UW-Platteville effort – Local Fare – works with small agricultural producers to expand the Local Foods market and build a local/regional food system.

The awards were part of the Building Economic Strength Together conference, the annual economic development spark plug of southwest Wisconsin. Accolades went to an Extension Agent who gets Crawford County entrepreneurs together, a dairy supply company from Darlington, a new regional bicycle roadmap with tons of tour loops, and a young graduate of UW-Platteville who loves robotics and built a great little company around his dream.

The Woman in Business award went to an angel who has dedicated her life to helping rural folks with handicaps obtain productive work. The City of Benton, an entrepreneurial hotbed of 975 still euphoric over a first state basketball championship, won the Cool Community award. It was a wise choice – it IS a cool community!

A big treat for me was being in the room when the folks who run Driftless Market (Portal Wisconsin Blogs – March 22, 2009) received the award for Regional New Entrepreneur.

Emphasizing the economic value of the local artist or entrepreneur recognizes that economies can be grown one step at a time. And besides that, most local artists, farmers or the home office worker will not leave for the next tax or cash incentive. We’re where we are for other reasons. Besides, many of us lucky enough to have adequate telecommunications tools can market our products and services anywhere.

Clearly small business is the economic backbone of Wisconsin and most of the Midwest. Cool communities and neighborhoods can grow many of their own jobs, and when economic developers recognize and support this we all benefit.

There is some great information on the economic impact of the arts and creative industries on the Arts Wisconsin website.  They’ll be the first to tell you that art is not a frill!

Rick Rolfsmeyer

Wisconsin Rural Partners, Hollandale, WI (pop. 283)

One Response to A different kind of economic development

  1. Rick, thanks for another great column.

    I would also point Portal Wisconsin readers and those interested in the region to http://www.thrivehere.org, the website of Thrive, the regional economic development enterprise for the eight-county south/west WI region. Thrive’s vision is economic development and quality of life–hand in hand– with a strong focus on entrepreneurship and asset-based initiatives. Much of what your column speaks so well to is embraced in our approach as an organization and as a region.

    Thanks for being such a strong and eloquent voice for our region’s strengths and intiatives!

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