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Regional view needed to support, expand technology business base, says consultant

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news New Richmond, 54017

New Richmond Wisconsin 127 South Knowles Avenue 54017

BALDWIN -- The technology-related business sector in west central Wisconsin has seen a steady, though not phenomenal, growth.

But the communities need to work together to develop and maximize talent and investment capital, advised a consultant last week.

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"I heard more about what divides you than what connects you," said Jerry Paytas of GPS Consulting. He said the cities and nine counties in the corridor must develop a regional orientation.

Paytas presented a preliminary report on a "talent, technology and target industry assessment" to about 40 business and community leaders gathered in Baldwin last Thursday.

"None of these counties has much of a future going it alone," said Paytas, warning that a "critical mass" of related businesses is needed to make a particular sector self-sustaining.

He suggested forming a "Leadership 50" group of CEOs with the knowledge and skills to encourage its own members and others, a coordinated business calling program, and formation of sector work groups to jointly pursue research and development opportunities.

"Innovation is a social activity," said Paytas. He advised that an organization of CEOs from high-growth firms throughout the region would unify their voice, celebrate successes and develop a base of qualified mentors for other businesses.

Chambers of commerce fragment the voice of entrepreneurs, and while incubator centers for developing businesses offer some benefits, they bring together budding entrepreneurs, who can't help one another because they are all facing the same challenges, said Paytas.

"They've got to connect with folks who've figured some of this out," he said.

Pierce and St. Croix counties have a good number of patent holders and about 550 households that could qualify as investors, but their assets are being channeled to Minneapolis rather than this area, said Paytas.

"West central Wisconsin can become a place where entrepreneurs thrive and where high skilled production occurs," he insisted.

Now, while conditions are relatively stable, is the time to move forward, said Paytas.

"It's not like if you guys do nothing, you're going to go away," he said. "But by the time you're in crisis, you're in trouble."

He said the region could stay the course and pick the low-hanging fruit from the Twin Cities, "wait for the next low-cost community to eat your lunch" and turn its destiny over to absentee owners.

Or, said Paytas, the area could develop a regional call to action, develop the scale needed to compete in a global economy, focus on what unites the region and leverage resources.

The region's colleges and universities annually graduate two to three times as many health care or business and management students than the area can employ. Paytas suggested developing employment opportunities and a better alignment of education with industry to create more jobs to keep science and engineering graduates in the region.

He also urged that development programs hear the needs of existing businesses and take action to keep those companies stable and growing.

Too many economic development efforts provide financial help for new businesses moving in and less for existing businesses, said Paytas.

"The existing businesses are aware of that, and it ticks them off."

GPS's final report will be published and available at the end of January.

The nine counties included in the study are Pierce, St. Croix, Polk, Pepin, Dunn, Chippewa, Eau Claire, Barron and Clark.

Contact Judy Wiff at regional@rivertowns.net and at 426-1049.

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