Would You Move to Wisconsin to Save Ten Minutes?

Next City pointed me at a new ad campaign the state of Wisconsin is running aimed at luring Chicago Millennials to move north.

The focus of the campaign is on Wisconsin’s lower cost of living and shorter commute times vs. Chicago. The state says:

The messaging conveys the central idea that Wisconsin is “more you.” You can be more here, mean more, create more impact, and have more, making Wisconsin a better fit for you. To drive this point home, specific ads contrast life in Wisconsin with that in Chicago, highlighting the state’s shorter commute time, lower cost of living, lower taxes and numerous recreational, social and cultural opportunities.

I find this interesting because, other than potentially outdoor recreation, the campaign does not really attempt to convince you that Wisconsin is better than Chicago in any respect, merely that the costs of living there are lower. In terms of product, the campaign imagery portrays Wisconsin in two ways: as a place for outdoor recreation, and as a facsimile of urban Chicago.

Here are some clips from their pre-roll ads. First, an urban rooftop bar in what appears to be Madison:

Here’s a stylishly dressed couple heading to a swank restaurant.

The image at the top of the post shows outdoor recreation. Here’s another example.

One thing about a campaign like this is that attempting to lure residents to a state, as opposed to a specific locale, is an intrinsically difficult task. Wisconsin has multiple urban centers and diverse rural type areas as well. State agencies have to be fair to all areas of the state. But it’s impossible to represent all areas equally well in a campaign of this type. So they have a hard job.

I’d also give them kudos for the outdoor focus. Wisconsin is already known to Chicagoans as a place for outdoor recreation, weekend homes, etc. Chicago has the lake, but otherwise much of northern Illinois is flat. So it’s natural to highlight the easy availability of outdoor activities in selling the state. It’s interesting to see that the campaign appears to steer clear of hunting and fishing, two great Wisconsin pastimes.

Unfortunately, they are attempting to compete against Chicago where Chicago is actually pretty strong. The Windy City is more expensive than Wisconsin, but probably has America’s best “Quality-Price Ratio” of when it comes to truly big city urban environments. The reality is that someone with a professional income can live pretty well in Chicago. Also, you aren’t going to live in one of nicer urban precincts of a city like Milwaukee for the ridiculously cheap rent you might imagine, particularly if you want to live in one of the high quality apartments or homes showcased in the video.

As I always remind people, choosing a place to live is more like buying a house than buying laundry detergent. For Tide, all you care about is the price tag on the bottle. But I’m guessing very few of us live in the cheapest home we could find. It’s more likely the opposite, that we live in the most expensive one we can afford, in the best neighborhood, with the best schools, the nicest amenities, etc. Price is a factor, but not the only one. Also, if cheap is what you are looking for, America, and even the Midwest, is replete with low cost communities.

Another of their focus areas is commute time. They claim that, ““Chicagoans have the longest commute times in the country.” I thought this was curious, but perhaps it came from this survey. By contrast, they note that Wisconsin’s average commute time is 22 minutes. It’s not fair to compare a city against a state in commute time. But even so, per that survey that says Chicago has the worst commute, the average commute time there is only 32 minutes. Are people really going to move to another state to save ten minutes?

Some people in Chicago undoubtedly have long commutes. But some do in Wisconsin as well. I never had an L commute of anywhere near an hour, not even when I lived in Evanston. So I don’t think the hour commute they talk about in at least one of their ads will even resonate with most Chicagoans. Also, their shots of the L make the principal negative feature boredom. But otherwise it actually looks quite pleasant, with no crowding at all – maybe even better than reality.

The best Wisconsin appeal based on a cost-quality-commute type of evaluation is probably suburb to suburb. The nicer suburbs of places like Indianapolis and Columbus compare very favorably with most Chicago suburbs. I would assume the same is true for Madison and Milwaukee. Of course, in Chicagoland the suburbs are actually seeing declines in college-degreed Millennials, so the pond to be fished there may be limited. Then again, maybe Wisconsin’s best appeal isn’t to Millennials, but to Generation Xers in the 35-55 bracket.

When I think of Wisconsin I think of cheese, beer, Packer nation, pristine lakes and forests of the northern part of the state, the Dells, and Madison’s (deserved) reputation as one of the best (if not they best) examples of a lefty college town.  Some of the Wisconsin images, such as beer and brats, also apply to Chicago, making them hard to use as a marketing hook. But many of the traditional ideas about the state are missing from this campaign. Chicagoans, who know those images well, will probably be wondering what’s up.  Maybe cheese curds aren’t cool. But then again, either was Pabst Blue Ribbon until some marketing folks made it so.

Marketing to Chicago, and potentially next to Minneapolis and Detroit, makes sense at one level. People tend to move shorter rather than longer distances. People moving to Wisconsin are also likely to have some historic connection to the state, and Chicago is a good place to look for them.

But it’s also an example of the Midwest’s beggar thy neighbor style of economic development. The fight is against the city next door, with the rest of America (to say nothing of the world), not part of the picture. Is there a better market for Wisconsin to try to attract from?

Based on its target geographies and appeals based on cost, this campaign doesn’t appear to becoming from a place of perceived strength.

from Aaron M. Renn


The Upsides of Tight Labor Markets

Photo Credit: Kathryn Decker/Flickr, CC-BY-2.0

If you didn’t see it, the NYT had a front page piece on Sunday about how tight labor markets in some cities are forcing employers to rethink their stance towards hiring people with criminal records.

Employers are also becoming more flexible in other ways. Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based software company that analyzes job-market data, has found an increase in postings open to people without experience. And unemployment rates have fallen sharply in recent years for people with disabilities or without a high school diploma.

Until recently, someone like Jordan Forseth might have struggled to find work. Mr. Forseth, 28, was released from prison in November after serving a 26-month sentence for burglary and firearm possession. Mr. Forseth, however, had a job even before he walked out of the Oregon Correction Center a free man.

Nearly every weekday morning for much of last year, Mr. Forseth would board a van at the minimum-security prison outside Madison, Wis., and ride to Stoughton Trailers, where he and more than a dozen other inmates earned $14 an hour wiring taillights and building sidewalls for the company’s line of semitrailers.

After he was released, Mr. Forseth kept right on working at Stoughton. But instead of riding in the prison van, he drives to work in the 2015 Ford Fusion he bought with the money he saved while incarcerated.

“It’s a second chance,” Mr. Forseth said. “I think we’re proving ourselves out there to be pretty solid workers.”

Mr. Forseth got that chance in part because of Dane County’s [Madison’s] red-hot labor market. Stoughton Trailers, a family-owned manufacturer that employs about 650 people at its plant in the county, has raised pay, offered referral bonuses and expanded its in-house training program. But it has still struggled to fill dozens of positions.

A lot of people got essentially exiled from the labor force during the Great Recession and its aftermath. This includes people with criminal record, but as noted in the piece it also includes others like high school drop outs, those with disabilities, people who ended up with a long employment gap on their resume. We could add to that people recovering from addictions of various types, etc.

Businesses love to complain about not being able to attract workers. But now they are starting to take previously off-limits action themselves, instead of asking the government to bail them out.

This is a positive development and I hope it lasts for a while and expands geographically. Employers had been acting like the prima donnas of hiring, demanding the exact right person with the exact right skills, etc. This bad for them and bad for the country.

There’s always been a group of people essentially shut down of the system and living life on the margins. This is probably inevitable in any human society of any size. But when you end up with millions and millions of people in that category, that’s a very bad development.

America is the land of the second chance. There are a lot of people in the country who need another chance. Sadly, not everybody is going to make it. But getting people a job, where they can start taking responsibility for themselves and their family, and start a journey of personal change and growth, is essentially a precondition to getting at least some percentage of people out of a bad spot.

As I noted when talking about proposed “ban the box” regulations:

These companies have become penny-wise and pound foolish.  Today they only care about short term profits in the now. With untold millions of unemployed, underemployed, and out of the labor force Americans of prime working age, these firms would be well-served to change their approach and start making a broader effort to give people a chance to get their foot back into the working world.

When this sort of structural unemployment is high, the social contract broadly construed says it’s something we all should care about and want to do something about.  If American business decides they won’t, ban the box regulation is likely to be among the least of the consequences the discipline of the political marketplace ends up imposing on them.

Perhaps the marketplace is starting to force businesses to take the kinds of actions that are probably beneficial for themselves in the long run.

from Aaron M. Renn

More Midwest Ideas

Milwaukee. Photo Credit: Jim Bauer, CC BY-ND 2.0

I got quite a bit of feedback on my posts about Midwest game changers. I thought I’d hoist some of the comments to share with everyone.

Richard Longworth proposes a Midwest Marshall Plan:

The Marshall Plan pumped billions into Europe’s post-war economy, but this money came with a big string attached. The European countries had to create the programs themselves, and they had to do it in consultation and collaboration with each other. This was asking a lot, considering these countries had just stopped killing each other. But the dream of recovery, coupled with the sheer amount of money, brought them together. The result was a bunch of joint international projects, plus a European payments union, plus a lowering of national trade barriers, plus the creation of the Organization for European Economic Cooperation, which has since morphed into the OECD, plus a habit of cooperation that led first to the Coal and Steel Community, which led to the European Economic Community, which led to the EU. Economists differ on how much good the Marshall money made, since it only started  in 1948, when some recovery was under way. But by insisting on a regional approach – on the Europeans working together as Europeans, as citizens of a region, not just France or Norway – the Plan instilled transnational approaches that continue to this day. Not all of Europe benefitted from this – areas like the Lorraine and Wallonia suffer to this day – but the whole continent sure did. So how does this translate to the Midwest? I’d urge federal grants that play to the Midwest’s advantage – in energy, say, or water, or bio, or nano – but insist on cooperation between states (of  which there is hardly any now) or across state lines. Seen from Chicago, such an approach would mean joint economic development  projects for the entire Chicago region, from Milwaukee down into northern Indiana and western Michigan, which would enable this natural region to act as a real region, while freeing it form the idiotic rivalries of its various states. Grants wouldn’t go to a single university but to a consortium of universities. Instead of focusing on Cleveland, projects would embrace the  greater Cleveland area, stretching even toward Pittsburgh. Right now, people are thinking about Janesville, Paul Ryan’s home and the victim of that big GM closing: why not think instead of the Rock Valley, from Beloit and Janesville down into Illinois and Rockford? And so on. You get the idea.

This is a potential solution to rkcookjr’s observation:

Somewhat related, if there is any way to get some sort of effective multi-state cooperative effort — like what already exists to protect the Great Lakes — that might be helpful. As much as other states love to pig-pile on Illinois and its very real problems, I’m not sure anyone in the Midwest really wins when you have one state bidding against another all the time. Multi-unit government cooperation is always a difficult play, but at some point there needs to be recognition that cooperative efforts can rebrand the whole region, and in the end everyone wins when that happens.

brecchie1 offers (abridged list):

Dedicate more of infrastructure spending to maintenance rather than new building: This subtle change would benefit legacy cities over sprawling suburbs. While it would have nationwide effects, it would also disproportionately benefit the older cities of the Midwest.

A Rust Belt Regional Commission: A federally supported body, modeled on the Appalachian Regional Commission, that identifies barriers to growth and prosperity in the region.

National right to unionize: A Constitutional amendment that gives workers the right to unionize and abolishes “right to work” laws. Much reduces the beggar-thy-neighbor approach of Sun Belt states poaching Midwestern manufacturing jobs. Workers would still have to worry about their jobs moving overseas, but that’s a bigger lift for a company than moving to Mississippi. Side benefit: existing workers in Mississippi can finally unionize.

Owen Alexander Thomas says:

The Great Lakes region, from Chicago to Toronto needs a body to standardize trade documents, legal contracts, work visas, cross-licensing and other soft forms of business infrastructure the way they already do for ports and rail crossings. someone in Buffalo should have no problem selling to a business or contracting to provide services in Hamilton, Ontario a few miles a way. A divided market loses scale and is necessarily inefficient and the Great Lakes is much less integrated as a trade area than it should be given the incredibly low costs of shipping materials around the region and the volume of agricultural and other resources produced within 100 miles of a port on one of the lakes.

Eddie in NorCal offers:

Midwest institutions, including state/local employee pension plans, university endowments, foundations and family offices are significant Limited Partners, i.e., investors, in many VC funds. If these LP’s were to invest a meaningful amount of funds in more locally concentrated VC firms, the number of startups in the same geographies will increase. It’s at least possible, if not probable, that the ROI on such funds would trail that of the top tier of coastal-based VC firms. But the economic dividends from such a strategy would be an important offset, particularly for public institutions such as the aforementioned universities and state/local government employees.

There are other ideas and quite a bit more discussion in the previous article comment section.


from Aaron M. Renn

Drivers of Economic Divergence

Image via Shutterstock

My latest Governing column talks about some of the drivers of economic divergence between regions, including globalization, technological change, and lifestyle preferences.

The challenge for promoting a more equitable growth distribution is that most of these came from the market. So it will really take market change to address them. But others were a result of conscious policy changes we can reconsider. Here’s an excerpt:

We’re seeing other new trends contributing to economic centralization, such as the relocation of corporate headquarters into central cities to take advantage of proximity to professional services, talent and international flights. Companies like ADM, Caterpillar and GE have made or announced such moves. These are typically only small executive headquarters, but the loss of senior staff is significant for many of the less advantaged communities these companies are moving away from.

Then there’s technology, which has revolutionized business and many areas of everyday life. Technology-based businesses like Facebook or Google have network or other scale effects that create winner-take-all situations in some domains. This has centralized significant economic power in tech hubs. Technology also requires specialized skills, and the distribution of people with those skills is not even. They are again concentrated in global cities.

And then there are changes in lifestyle preferences, especially among younger adults. Compared to Generation X and baby boomers, millennials with college degrees have shown a greater preference for urban living with its dense, mixed-use development, walkability and public transit. Those amenities are also unevenly distributed, mostly existing in older cities built in the railroad and streetcar era.

Click through to read the whole thing.

from Aaron M. Renn

America’s Urban Middle Neighborhoods

Image via City Journal

I was pleased to recently get to attend a conference about America’s middle neighborhoods hosted by the American Assembly and the Richmond Fed. They are looking at the fate of America’s in-between urban neighborhoods, ones neither poor nor rich. These former urban bulwarks have been increasingly tipping towards decline.

I discuss this in my latest piece over at City Journal:

One of the culprits here is sprawl. In slow-growing regions where new home construction exceeds household growth, new homes put downward pressure on the price of existing homes. Those who can afford the newer, less centrally located homes move, reducing the price of comparable housing in older neighborhoods, leading poorer people to move into these older neighborhoods. This process is called filtering, and it can be a healthy, renewing process in a vibrant local economy. But in stagnant areas, filtering leads to the hollowing-out of the oldest housing stock and ultimately to distressed, abandoned neighborhoods.

For example, Buffalo built nearly 60,000 new homes between 1980 and 2011, even as the area population was shrinking. The Cleveland area continues to build new suburban developments, as its regional population shrinks. This expansion of construction amid economic stagnation is a recipe for distress for older middle neighborhoods.

Another source of stress is demographic change. Many middle neighborhoods contain a monolithic housing stock predating 1960. They were built for the postwar traditional nuclear family. That family structure is in decline, and today’s traditional family often prefers different housing types. As Allan Mallach noted in On the Edge: America’s Middle Neighborhoods, “Many of these neighborhoods are now facing a demographic trap: the demographic for which they were designed and which sustained them for most of the past century has declined drastically as a share of the urban population and no new source of demand capable of sustaining these areas has emerged.”

Click through to read the whole thing.

from Aaron M. Renn

Innovating Regulation

Image via Josephine

I was privileged to be part of an Aspen Institute working group on regulation and the innovation economy. Aspen’s Center for Urban Innovation, headed by Jennifer Bradley, just launched a web site devoted to the topic. In incorporates a number of interesting case studies to learn from, including the Austin’s attempts to regulate Uber and Lyft, and attempts to launch to home cooked meal delivery platform Josephine in the Bay Area.

I also recorded some podcasts some people and businesses who were involved with the project. This included my conversation with Charley Wang at Josephine, which is both an inspiring and tragic story. And my discussion with Rhode Island public utilities department administrator Macky McCleary about their “innovation lanes” program.

Jennifer Bradley also recently penned an op-ed for Next City on the topic.

Many city governments in the U.S. and elsewhere are torn when it comes to innovation. On the one hand, constituents live in a world that increasingly demands flexibility, interaction, and iteration, and governments want to be seen as responsive to new ideas and services. On the other, the “move fast and break things” ethos of many technology companies seems wildly inappropriate when public health and safety are at stake. Cities are bound by regulatory processes developed decades ago and designed for predictability, stability, and protection—not for speed, ease, and invention. In addition, regulations have accumulated over time to respond to the urgent concerns of years or even decades ago, which might be irrelevant today.

The real work for city leaders today is to create not just new rules, but new ways of writing and adjusting regulations that better fit the dynamism and pace of change of cities themselves. Regulations are a big part of the city’s operating system, and, like an operating system, they should be data-informed, continually tweaked, and regularly refreshed to respond to bugs and new use cases.

Please do check out the project, because this is a very important emerging area for cities and states to get right.

from Aaron M. Renn

Torn Between Two World

Downtown Covington, Indiana. Photo Credit: J. Stephen Conn, CC BY-NC 2.0

Last year I wrote about Caity Cronkhite, a Covington, Indiana native whose angry screed against her home town went viral.

Michael Philipps of the Wall Street Journal recently wrote a fantastic profile of Caity, who subsequently became disillusioned with her new hometown in the Bay Area as well, and had second thoughts about her Indiana hometown as well. Here are some excepts:

She posted the essay on the blog site Medium, she said, to spotlight the disadvantages faced by rural youth. “My academic background at a low-ranking, rural public school in a backwater town wasn’t good enough for admissions committees to take a chance on me,” she wrote of her many rejection letters.

Ms. Cronkhite didn’t think people at home would care or even notice. Her mother knew Fountain County better. After she read the post, she thought, Oh goodness. What is this going to stir up?

“How dare you blame our community for your misfortune,” one woman responded after the essay surfaced on Facebook. “How dare you belittle the people of the place I call home.”

A Covington teacher wrote: “I am going to pray for you tonight. After reading your article it seems as if you have underlying emotional issues that you have been dealing with for quite some time. It is sometimes easier to blame others for our shortcomings rather than look deep inside our own soul.”

One Covington High graduate identified himself as “a proud member of the Covington Community that got rid of a stuck-up, self-absorbed, whiny child.”

Some people empathized with Ms. Cronkhite and praised her candor. But the vitriol of her critics was hard for her to take. She called her mother, crying. “I can’t even come back to Kingman because they just don’t want me there anymore,” she said.

Ms. Cronkhite returned to California depressed about Kingman. She had fallen hard for the Bay Area. She felt her own politics sliding left, merging with her surroundings. She liked the racial diversity and gay pride parades.

To her disappointment, she found that the inclusiveness didn’t extend to white, small-town America. Friends at work one day called her over to ask about Cracker Barrel. “It’s just like a chain restaurant we go to treat ourselves,” Ms. Cronkhite said.

A co-worker jumped in: “It’s this really white-trash restaurant that overweight Midwesterners go to.”

Then came the invitation to join some friends at Butter. The San Francisco bar is decorated as a sendup of rural white America, complete with the front end of a Winnebago RV. The menu included such cocktails as the Whitetrash Driver, vodka and SunnyD; Bitchin’ Camaro, spiced rum and Dr Pepper; and After School Special, vodka and grape soda.

“It was, all of the sudden, in my face,” Ms. Cronkhite said. “Things at home we thought were nice or parts of our culture were treated with open scorn and disdain and like a joke.”

She sensed bigotry where she had sought tolerance and animosity where she thought she had found a welcome. The more she saw big-city small-mindedness, the more she softened on Kingman.

Ms. Cronkhite and her boyfriend had fun camping in Shades State Park. They went with her parents to the Moon-Glo bar across the Illinois line. They ate pork-tenderloin sandwiches.

At home, though, things got confusing. Ms. Cronkhite’s mother, worn down by hard Indiana winters, had persuaded her husband to buy a house in Alabama, not far from the Gulf of Mexico.

Would they be selling the farm? Ms. Cronkhite wanted to know. She couldn’t imagine her father ever leaving Fountain County.

Mr. Cronkhite, 69 years old, grew up nearby, as did his father and grandfather. He was drafted out of high school and served a year in Vietnam. Mr. Cronkhite returned to Indiana to care for his parents, who had made a living in the gas-station business, before becoming a long-haul trucker.

While on the road, Mr. Cronkhite was always eager to return home, where he would meet his buddies at the Marathon gas station for morning coffee. He drove by Niagara Falls dozens of times and never stopped to look at the view.

Ms. Cronkhite’s mother, Martha Cronkhite, was the one who always stopped to look. She was born in Columbus, Ind., and left as soon as she turned 18. She attended a two-year business school in Indianapolis and worked her way up the ladder at a shopping-mall company.

Mrs. Cronkhite, 66, met her future husband at a party in 1987. They were, in some ways, opposites. She rarely indulged in a chuckle. Once Gus Cronkhite got laughing, he would keep it up until he cried.

With her parents’ move now a certainty, Ms. Cronkhite and her boyfriend settled onto the back porch one night and talked about the land that stretched out before them. It turned out, she wasn’t ready to let it all go.

“If I ever have kids, they’re never going to understand this huge part of me,” she said. “I want there to be a reminder of where I come from and who I am.”

Click through to read the whole thing (subscription required, alas).

from Aaron M. Renn