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Legislative outreach: Building relationships, getting on the radar

State Rep. John Murtha, (R-Baldwin) and aide Alicia Schweitzer spent 20 minutes receiving a briefing on the issues with Bill Rubin, executive director of St. Croix County Economic Development Corporation. (Photo by Steve Dzubay)1 / 4
Russ Korpela, former director of the New Richmond Area Chamber of Commerce, and now Momentum West executive director; Mark Mitchell, Derrick Companies and SCEDC board member; and Marian Webber, River Valley Trails volunteer, discussed their plans over lunch. (Photo by Steve Dzubay)2 / 4
A group of 30 representatives from four western Wisconsin counties met with legislators in Madison last week. (Photo by Steve Dzubay)3 / 4
Joe Huftel, WITC-New Richmond administrator, confers with Chris Blasius, executive director of the River Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau, ahead of beginning visits to legislators on Tuesday. (Photo by Steve Dzubay)4 / 4

MADISON — As if they’d planned fireworks over Madison to highlight the fact western Wisconsin is on the move, 30 representatives from four counties traveling to the Capitol last week had the sweet success of a new business expansion to tap as a pickup line while nosing their way into lawmakers’ offices.

While en route Tuesday morning from Hudson and Menomonie in two rented vans and several cars, word was received that Gov. Scott Walker’s office had just announced the expansion of Rhode Island-based United Natural Foods Inc. into Prescott.

The project is expected to bring 314 well-paying jobs, a Gold LEED-certified building project valued at $37 million, and the buzz of a business segment Wall Street says is poised for growth.

People representing local Chambers of Commerce, economic development, municipalities and business in Pierce, St. Croix, Polk and Dunn counties signed on for a 15-hour day to raise awareness and influence policymakers to regional needs and wants.

St. Croix EDC director Bill Rubin joked that “small countries in Central America have probably been overthrown with less planning” than went into Tuesday’s visit to Madison.

Rubin and his counterparts from Dunn County (Eric Turner), Polk County (Steve Healy) and Pierce County (Heather Hines) held several teleconferences after surveying members to arrive at the 12 major initiatives. The participants carried these in printed literature and face-to-face messages to each senator, representative or a respective staff member.

The 2014 legislative priorities focused on three themes: Economic development; transportation/infrastructure; and workforce-education:

— Economic Development, with priorities to align WEDC funding to include county EDCs as an extended enterprise; re-emphasize how important the income tax reciprocity agreement has on regional economies along the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, especially in the St. Croix Valley; and continue expanding broadband coverage in the St. Croix Valley and throughout Wisconsin, especially rural areas.

— Transportation, with emphasis to protect transportation funding for its intended purpose and identify new and sustainable funding options; support the I-94 corridor study between the Town of Hudson and Village of Roberts and accelerate future construction plans; support the Highway 64 freeway/expressway designation and conversion study between the Town of St. Joseph and City of New Richmond; create awareness and support the long-term Highway 8 corridor preservation plan/study in Polk County; and work to ensure WisDOT, the DNR, and Department of Tourism all designate a future bicycling path from the new St. Croix Crossing bridge to the I-94 bridge in Hudson.

— Workforce/Education priorities included restoring industry partnerships and career pathways grant programs; continuation of funding the UW System economic development grant program; supporting statutory changes in the planning and design of university capital projects; supporting new degree programs at UW-River Falls and UW-Stout in high-demand fields, including engineering; and supporting increasing the $1.5 million statutory referendum threshold for capital projects at technical colleges.

Following a briefing and lunch, volunteers broke into teams and searched the labyrinth-like corridors at the Capitol for offices of those they were assigned to visit.

Following three hours of 20-minute appointments, the groups convened in a ground floor conference room. Rubin, UW-River Falls’ Special Assistant to the Chancellor Dr. Blake Fry, Dunn County’s Eric Turner, Luck-area Realtor Eric Dueholm, Hudson trail advocate Marian Webber, and WITC New Richmond campus administrator Joe Huftel recounted the 12-point list for Walker policy advisors Waylon Hurlburt and Eileen Schoenfeldt.

The pair responded to each item, promising to dig out more information or follow up with someone who had spoken on the issue.

Fry wanted to make sure the governor knows how much UW-RF appreciates funding for the new human performance center.

“It’s been a real game-changer in terms of the morale at the university, so please thank the governor for that!” said Fry, noting that groundbreaking is tentatively set for May 2.

“Do we have a scheduling request for the governor?” Hurlburt replied with a smile.

Fry assured him he’d talk to event organizers to get an invitation out for Walker to attend.

At the end of the day, the effectiveness of the democratic exercise remains to be seen.

As Rubin told lawmakers and aides, the trip will have been a success if funding for a stretch of I-94 is moved up a year or two, if a lawmaker learns that UW-Stout or UW-River Falls wishes to offer engineering majors, or if the capital spending limit for area technical colleges is increased.

Paul Shafer, economic development leader from Amery, told Rubin he felt fortunate to go on the last three trips to Madison and finds it rewarding.

“The feedback we get from the visits we make is extremely positive as it relates to the booklet that is left with them,” he said.

Said Rubin: “We were told several years ago that our region could pool its money to hire a lobbyist, but the cabinet secretary providing the advice said it was much more effective going to Madison as citizen advocates. I believe our small group of citizen advocates is making a difference and most of the group participates year after year.”

Rubin noted that most of the Greater St. Croix Valley is at least four hours from Madison.

“That means even with strong representation from around the area, we still have to tell our story and create awareness of what’s going on here and what the region’s priorities are,” he said.

“Can a legislator find, say Polk or St. Croix County on a map? Perhaps so, but just in case, we’ll go to Madison at least once a year to make sure. A big part of the day is about building relationships.”

Rubin said it takes effort, and the payoffs can be subtle.

“Telling our ‘Hey-did-you...?’ stories or citing a quick fact about the region is the fun part of the day,” he said. “Getting our priorities across is a little trickier, especially when it comes to expenditures.

“Some of our issues are way out on the horizon, but even then, if we can advance a transportation or infrastructure project by a year or two, I believe we’ve done our jobs with the legislative visits.”

Steve Dzubay

Steve Dzubay has been publisher at the River Falls Journal and Hudson Star Observer from 1995-2016. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. He previously worked as a reporter-photographer at small daily newspapers in Minnesota and is past editor of the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal.