Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation generally focused on larger projects aimed at building up the state’s economy, which is to say, the quasi-public agency made about 300 grants a year.
But with the impact the coronavirus had on economic life in Wisconsin, “we had to invent a bunch of tools to help businesses,” Missy Hughes, the secretary and CEO of WEDC, said during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program posted on Marquette Law School’s web site on Wednesday (March 18, 2021).
The result? WEDC has made more than 60,000 grants during the pandemic period, the large number of them to small businesses seeking federal money intended to help those businesses stay alive.
As much as the grants have helped and as much as business owners and operators have shown grit, resiliency and creativity in what they are doing, Hughes told Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, that she was concerned that 20 percent to 30 percent of small businesses statewide would not survive the pandemic.
Hughes’ assessment of the state’s manufacturing businesses was more positive. “The manufacturing sector has largely survived this pandemic,” she said. “Our manufacturers have by and large done pretty well.”
Hughes said there are new opportunities arising for Wisconsin’s economy, but she listed areas that need attention. Included on the list: Expansion of broadband service to rural parts of the state (“it’s a very fixable problem”) and improving the situation in the Milwaukee area when it comes to racial disparities.
She said WEDC is working to make venture capital more available in Wisconsin. She also said Wisconsin as a whole needs to be more inclusive if it wants to attract people. “Young people want to come to an inclusive environment,” she said. “They want to come to a diverse environment.” She added, “Every moment we are not inclusive, we are turning somebody away.”
In response to Gousha’s question about the future of the Foxconn manufacturing site in Racine County, Hughes said, “I am very optimistic that we are going to find a path forward.” What about the possibility that has been raised of Foxconn building electric vehicles there? She responded with no details, but said Wisconsin “has the opportunity to be right in the middle of this new energy economy.”
Overall, she said, it is a good time for Wisconsin business leaders – and WEDC itself – to be asking, “What can we be building that is part of the new economy?”
Video of the program may be viewed by clicking here.