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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Fair
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Madison's economic future lies along I-94, to Waukesha and Milwaukee
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Who knows, but just maybe Madison's future can be found on the first floor of the historic American Exchange Bank on the Capitol Square. Nine info-tech start-ups - focused on everything from gaming to fashion to medical care - are housed in a business incubator run by an investment group known as 94Labs.

The name is telling, as it highlights the I-94 corridor connecting the Madison area with Milwaukee and Waukesha County - the state's biggest metro area. Eighty miles from the Square, 94Labs runs another incubator in Milwaukee that's equidistant to Marquette University, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and UW-Milwaukee.

The I-94 corridor "is a mega-region," says 94Labs' Greg Meier, using the phrase of celebrated urban theorist Richard Florida to describe the growing linkages of metro areas.

"The mega-regions of today perform functions that are somewhat similar to those of the great cities of the past - massing together talent, productive capability, innovation and markets," Florida told a Tampa Bay paper earlier this year.

For local evidence, consider the lives of Rachel and Michael Centinario, a 20-something couple living in Lake Mills on the Madison side of the corridor. Rachel, a UW-Madison Law School graduate, drives every morning to downtown Milwaukee to her job with the National Labor Relations Board, while Michael, a graduate student at UW-Madison, heads to DeForest, where he works as a planner.

"[Dual east-west] commuting is more common than I expected," says Rachel, who notes the couple also considered moving to Johnson Creek and Oconomowoc. "A lot of people are doing it."

Indeed, if you look forward 10, 20, 30 years, it's easy to envision the Milwaukee-to-Madison corridor as Wisconsin's Main Street, connecting great universities, entrepreneurs, capital and a talented workforce moving back and forth along the corridor.

"This is what should be driving our economic thinking," says Meier.

Just look out the window the next time you drive to Milwaukee. The corridor is already taking shape in good and bad ways. Lake Mills and Johnson Creek have reached out to the Interstate. The huge Aurora Medical Center has staked a major claim near the corridor's center in western Waukesha County. The 1,500-acre Pabst Farms near Oconomowoc is a master-planned community that will become a monster presence in the decades to come. Once-sleepy Delafield is now a sprawl town. And then things get dense as you approach Milwaukee.

Tom Hefty, a retired Milwaukee-area business executive who studies economic development, says that the Madison-Milwaukee corridor is blessed with industry leaders big enough to attract like-minded "cluster" businesses and generate lots of jobs. As examples, he cites Generac, Waukesha Engine, and Briggs & Stratton for electric generators; Epic Systems for medical software; Quad/Graphics for printing; and GE Healthcare for medical technology. These are all first-class industry anchors.

Thinking big, Hefty points out that Madison to Milwaukee is only a little less distant than the Raleigh-to-Durham hypotenuse of the famed Research Triangle in North Carolina. Also thinking big, Meier says that the drive between Madison and Milwaukee takes about the same time as the drive from San Francisco to Silicon Valley.

Both men are gung ho on the corridor's prospects to further the new economy. So should we assume that Dane County's economic and political leaders are too?

Well, no.

This is a problem. Dane County's regional strategy doesn't consider Milwaukee and Waukesha County at all. Instead, it's pitched to the seven mostly rural counties around Dane County with their modest to downright small cities: Janesville, Monroe, Dodgeville, Juneau, Baraboo.

Thrive, a development group backed by the region's corporate and political leadership, has done good work. It's promoted a local food system and talked candidly about the region's lackluster economic performance.

But Terrence Wall, a commercial real estate developer, probably gets it right when he says: "Thrive has failed to produce direct, tangible job creation [despite its] excellent leadership and a terrific board." The Thrive region is just too big and has too many constituencies to satisfy, he says. Like Meier, Wall thinks the Madison-Milwaukee corridor should be the focus of our economic efforts. (Thrive's Jennifer Alexander argues her group can pursue both strategies, but that doesn't seem realistic.)

Hefty has been sounding the I-94 theme for a decade, dating to the Jim Doyle gubernatorial administration, when he tried to convince the Democrat to back a corridor plan that would include preservation of farmland and of the Kettle Moraine topography. Given how prone transportation corridors are to producing dysfunctional sprawl, this was a capital idea. But nothing came of it.

The political environment is even worse today. The federally funded Milwaukee-to-Madison Amtrak extension would have doubled down on the corridor's transportation ace. But Gov. Scott Walker, for all his talk of promoting job creation, promptly sent the $810 million back to Washington.

The reality is that any notion of regionalism and collective action is in fast retreat in Wisconsin, including the state pulling the plug on regional transportation planning. The next target may be the state's "Smart Growth" law. Pulling together a farsighted I-94 corridor plan seems just about impossible in this environment, save for one thing.

Guys like Greg Meier, who expressed bafflement over the state's political climate when we talked, will continue to do what they're doing - hauling a backward-looking state into the 21st-century economy.

Marc Eisen is the former editor of Isthmus.

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