At WEDC, focus expands to communities and small businesses — not just big ones

Hughes outlines economic development agenda that includes ‘our underlying investments’

By: - May 17, 2023 5:45 am

Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. CEO Missy Hughes speaks at a luncheon Tuesday. (Wisconsin Examiner photo)

Economic development is about much more than attracting big businesses to Wisconsin communities, the state’s chief economic development official said Tuesday during a public Q & A session in Madison. 

In the three and a half years since she was appointed, said Missy Hughes, Secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., her work has broadened beyond “increasing the square footage in a community” occupied by industry or “attracting businesses and things like that.”

Hughes fielded questions for an hour at a lunch gathering sponsored by, first from WisPolitics President Jeff Mayers, and then from the audience. 

“Economic development has really shifted,” she said. It includes addressing local needs for stronger broadband internet service, expanding affordable housing and finding ways to expand the available workforce and draw future workers to the state. “You can’t attract businesses” without addressing “our underlying investments,” Hughes said.

Historically, the Wisconsin economic development programs that tended to get the most attention — whether under the WEDC or its state government predecessors — were those that focused on landing big out-of-state companies to relocate in Wisconsin or persuading big Wisconsin companies not to leave. 

Big industries remain part of the agency’s agenda, but as Hughes has in the past, she emphasized Tuesday WEDC’s responsibility to smaller, homegrown businesses. 

Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, which dominated much of the WEDC’s work over the last three years, her agenda includes ensuring that the state and the department are “thinking about the future of our big industries, like manufacturing, or paper, or biohealth, and really focusing on what do we need to do to support those industries into the future,” Hughes said, “and also what we need to do to continue to think about our communities and our small businesses.”

In response to an audience question about encouraging exports, she observed that Wisconsin’s biggest companies, such as GE Healthcare or Milwaukee Tools, “they know how to export and they’re off and running. So we really focus on the small and medium-sized businesses.”

And addressing the demand for workers across the broad range of Wisconsin business, “we know that people are looking for communities and quality of life,” Hughes said. “And so we have to be thinking about, how do we invest in those aspects of our state in order to ensure that people stay here, that our kids stay here, and that, also, when folks come here, they choose to live here and work here for a long time.”

To that end, she said, WEDC has worked with local economic development organizations to help them market themselves to prospective transplants from other states.

A  recent study identified Wisconsin as second only to Iowa for the rate of small business survival over 10 years. “I really attribute that to the tenacity of our small businesses, but also to the support system that we’ve put in place for small businesses,” Hughes said. That support ranges from the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center to local chambers of commerce to marketing campaigns found all over the state encouraging consumers to buy local.

During the pandemic, “Wisconsin was No. 1 in the country for deploying federal dollars to businesses, No. 2 in the country for deploying dollars to economic development,” Hughes noted. 

“We’re also looking, at WEDC, at what are the tools that our small businesses need?” she added — including financial guidance, technical assistance, or marketing help. 

Hughes, who came to WEDC from the agricultural products co-op Organic Valley and whose home is in Viroqua, also talked up Wisconsin’s rural communities. “I honestly think rural Wisconsin is doing really, really well,” she said. 

When Evers appointed her in late 2019, “he said, ‘How can we make other communities in Wisconsin as vibrant as Viroqua?’” Hughes recalled.

WEDC established an Office of Rural Prosperity early in her tenure. She suggested that the idea faced skepticism in some quarters and an assumption that “you can’t save” the state’s struggling rural areas. The COVID-19 pandemic “was really an opportunity for rural Wisconsin to be reinvigorated, because people realize how nice it is to have someplace to go outside of the city.”

WEDC’s Main Street Bounceback program, using pandemic relief funds to provide grants to revitalize business districts in small communities around the state by refurbishing vacant buildings “has really helped those communities get an extra bit of momentum,” Hughes said. 

Federal pandemic relief funds have provided grants that helped the state add broadband internet access to 390,000 more homes, after a period of years when “fixing broadband seemed like an impossibility” and nothing changed, she said. Now “the next step [is] making sure that people have access to the hardware and the technology that they can use that broadband.”

Worker shortages remain a challenge. Hughes told of visiting manufacturers where assembly lines are backed up because the companies have too few workers so products take longer to build. “There’s opportunity that’s sitting on the assembly line, and it’s not happening,” she said.

“But at the same time, when I talk to the manufacturers, their businesses are booming, and they can’t keep up with orders,” she added. “So they’re frustrated, because they’re losing opportunity — but they’re not going backwards, they’re not laying people off.”

That lost opportunity is especially worrisome, however, she said, because of the risk that it might thwart efforts to develop new lines of business or to engage in emerging markets or products.

One of those emerging markets is the clean energy economy, Hughes said, and she wants to encourage Wisconsin companies that have been tied to fossil fuel products to make the clean energy shift — understanding that the adjustment can be challenging.  

“Those businesses have both a necessity and an opportunity to move into a new business. Regardless of whether you are for or against clean energy, that’s where the market is going,” Hughes said. “I want to make sure that at WEDC, we’re able to help businesses straddle that moment.”


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.