Economic development in booming Kenosha County, Wis., involves local government from the get-go, avoiding some of the ugly rifts that have typified the effort in Northwest Indiana.
That key difference emerged during interviews during the last several weeks with southeast Wisconsin leaders, as The Times explored that region's recent string of economic development successes. In the past year alone, $600 million in economic development deals were announced there promising to deliver more than 3,700 jobs.
Kenosha Area Business Alliance President Todd Battle says his economic development agency has built up credibility with local governments by being straightforward with them about opportunities.
"You have to earn their trust and respect," Battle said. "But that doesn't mean we can just walk in and say, 'Hey, we need this tomorrow.'"
In some ways, the Kenosha Area Business Alliance is similar to the Northwest Indiana Forum, which has generally been recognized as this region's umbrella organization for economic development. However, there are also some key differences between the two.
The Kenosha Area Business Alliance operates as a public-private partnership, with $125,000 in direct funding from Kenosha County government. That support is one factor in keeping the alliance responsive to local government, including providing them with quarterly reports, Battle said.
The business alliance's reason for being is economic development, including business retention and expanding the region's jobs base.
By contrast, the Northwest Indiana Forum operates as a private membership organization that devotes the bulk of its resources to serving the companies that support it with advocacy and other services. It also receives some financial support from municipalities and local economic development organizations, according to CEO Heather Ennis.
Direct economic development activities account for about one-fifth of its spending, according to the most recent budget information available on the Northwest Indiana Forum website. Helping member businesses with environmental compliance, advocating for members and other membership services account for the bulk of its spending.
Ennis said filling those other rolls makes the Northwest Indiana Forum more effective when it comes to economic development.
"It makes us a much stronger organization, because we are focused on the whole picture," Ennis said.
Both the Northwest Indiana Forum and the Kenosha Area Business Alliance have managing boards made up of leading businesses leaders. But the Kenosha Area Business Alliance also includes two college presidents, one college vice president and the local United Way CEO among its directors.
The difference in the pace of economic development in the two regions was driven home at an Aug. 6 address to the Northwest Indiana Forum by NAI Hiffman Senior Vice President Kelly Disser. He emphasized that Northwest Indiana is in direct competition for jobs with places like Kenosha County.
An analysis by The Times shows Kenosha County is clearly winning that competition, with 3,496 jobs promised by the top five economic development deals announced there in the past 12 months comparing to the 989 jobs promised by the top five in Northwest Indiana.
Another big difference between Northwest Indiana and Kenosha County is the process for creating and managing tax increment financing districts.
Those districts allow municipalities to finance infrastructure for specific economic development projects by issuing bonds. Those bonds are then paid off over the years with payments made in lieu of taxes by the companies that benefit. But that means school districts and other taxing entities realize no benefits from the projects while the payments in lieu of taxes are being used to pay off the bond.
Indiana law places the responsibility for creating TIF districts in the hands of local redevelopment commissions and sometimes the top municipal governing body.
In Porter County, school districts have jousted with redevelopment commissions and top elected officials for years over the formation of TIF districts. They contend at least some of those dollars should be used for educating children.
In Wisconsin, school districts and representatives of other taxing bodies have a decisive say on whether a TIF district is created. Under Wisconsin law, each effected taxing jurisdiction has a seat on a joint review board. No TIF district can be created without the approval of the joint review board.
That means the school district, village, city and special taxing entities can combine to snuff a TIF district if they want.
But that rarely happens because all of those representatives are involved in the deal on the front end, said Kenosha Mayor Keith Bosman.
"If someone announces they are bringing jobs and increasing the tax base, we've never had trouble doing a TIF district," Bosman said.