What does Madison have in common with Janesville? Janesville is a fine city with a beautiful downtown full of historic buildings, and its people have a proud tradition of hard work. That's true of Madison as well, but the comparison pretty much ends there.
Janesville is a manufacturing town that lived and died with General Motors. Madison is a university and government town that is weathering the Great Recession better than most places. Fifty-one percent of Madisonians over age 25 have a bachelor's degree or higher while the comparable percentage in Janesville is only 22%. Janesville took the recession on the chin while Madison stubbed its toe.
So why are Madison and Janesville both part of the same "region" as defined by the private-public economic development entity called Thrive? There is simply no good reason for it, and the wrong definition of the region is hurting Madison and Dane County, while it isn't doing much for the other seven included counties either. Thrive is a fine idea, and a good organization led and staffed by bright people, but it's fatally flawed by its size.
This post is prompted by a story in this morning's State Journal with a headline that reads: "City falls short in key areas." But if you read the article, you'll learn that the city of Madison is not being compared to the cities of Des Moines, Lincoln, and Austin -- the respective state capital city regions were being compared. A better headline would have been "region" falls short, which is what the paper used for the online version of the story.
Actually, the city of Madison is doing well in a direct comparison with those other cities. Madison has a higher per capita income and a much higher education achievement level than those other three communities. In fact, the much-vaunted Austin has a per capita income of $50,236 compared to Madison's higher $51,288, and the percentage of the adult population with a BA or higher is only 43% in Austin compared to the 51% level in Madison.
Moreover, Dane County's education level, median income and size of the economy bears no likeness to the other seven counties in the Thrive region. Here are the numbers from the national census.
In summary, there are more firms in Dane County alone then there are in the other seven counties combined, Dane County's median income is 7% higher than the next closest county, and its educational attainment level is more than twice that of the median among the other seven counties.
We could look at similar numbers for crime, where high crime numbers from Rock County make our region look worse than if you were just looking at Dane County alone.
All of this argues for an amicable divorce. New economy expert Rebecca Ryan made this point (although she didn't directly call out Thrive) in an excellent column in a recent edition of Madison Magazine.
I believe that the overbroad region will be the death knell for Thrive. The regional numbers don't help sell Dane County, but rather do the opposite. And how much attention can and should the other counties get from Thrive when so much of the economic output of the region comes from Dane County? This marriage isn't working for anybody. Let's admit we made a mistake, and move on with our economic development lives.
Have a good weekend.