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Madison's Portland Problem

"There’s a persistent rap that Madison simply lacks an entrepreneurial spirit, with many locals content with a laid-back life spent enjoying their neighborhoods, lakes, bike paths, and craft beers."
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Downtown Madison skyline. (PHOTO: DORI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Downtown Madison skyline. (PHOTO: DORI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

By most accounts, including my own, Madison is a thriving metro. As a big college town with a major research university, the capital city of Wisconsin should be a Creative Class star. When Richard Florida's first book came out, it was exactly that. A decade later, according to Florida's own assessment, it still is:

In another of Florida’s measures, Madison is 21st on the “creativity index of all metros,” also unchanged since 2002. The city finishes in front of both Los Angeles and the New York metropolitan area. This index combines what Florida calls the three T’s: the creative-class “talent” metric above, as well as measures of technology and tolerance.

Madison scores well on the creativity index. Well, what about more conventional metrics? Madison used to be lauded as one of the “Best Places for Business and Careers”:

To the surprise of many who knew it for left-wing politics, a meddling City Council and disdain for the private sector, there was Madison: No. 5 in the nation. Only Austin, Boise, Raleigh, and Atlanta scored higher in the annual survey based on a broad number of economic measures.

That doesn't surprise me. The update does (from same article):

But a decade later, Madison has slid all the way down to No. 89 on the list, right between Charleston, West Virginia, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A high cost of living and doing business, coupled with flat job growth contributed to the lower Forbes ranking.

Madison is still Creative Class cool. That's precisely the problem, the Portland Problem:

We chose Port­land mainly because it was cheaper than the other places we’d liked on a month-long road trip through the West (San Fran­cisco, Seat­tle, Mis­soula), because it had a great book store we both fell in love with, and because I had a cousin who lived there in the north­east part of the city, which was some­what less trendy back then. (Our first night, police found a body in the park across the street.) The plan was to stay a year, then try the other coast, then who knows? We were young! But we loved it and stayed for nearly five years. Then, when we started think­ing of breed­ing, like salmon, we decided to swim back to the pool in which we were bred.

For a vari­ety of not-very-well-thought-out rea­sons, this brought us to Madi­son, Wis­con­sin. It wasn’t too far from our fam­i­lies. It had a stel­lar rep­u­ta­tion. And for the Mid­west, it pos­sessed what might pass for cachet. It was lib­eral and open minded. It was a col­lege town. It had cof­fee shops and bike shops. Besides, it had been deemed a “Cre­ative Class” strong­hold by Richard Florida, the prophet of pros­per­ous cool. We had no way of know­ing how wrong he was about Madison ... and about everything.

... I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but within a year or two it was clear that some­thing wasn’t right. If Madi­son was such a Creative Class hotbed over­flow­ing with inde­pen­dent, post-industrial work­ers like myself, we should have fit in. Yet our pres­ence didn’t seem to mat­ter to any­one, cre­atively or oth­er­wise. And any­way, Madison’s econ­omy was hum­ming along with unem­ploy­ment around four per­cent, while back in fun, cre­ative Port­land, it was more than twice that, at eight and a half per­cent. This was not how the world accord­ing to Florida was sup­posed to work. I started to won­der if I’d mis­read him. Around town I encoun­tered a few other trans­plants who also found them­selves scratch­ing their heads over what the fuss had been about. Within a cou­ple years, most of them would be gone.

When I was a footloose twentysomething, Madison had a reputation as a place to be. You go there to hang out and talk philosophy, live the Slacker dream. Austin eventually grew up. Madison, what the hell happened?

Madison has also suffered from a “brain drain”: Graduates coming out of the U.W.—and Edgewood College and Madison College, for that matter—have taken their skills to places with more job opportunities and higher salaries. While difficult to quantify, the old joke that Madison does a great job educating other people’s kids, then sends them off to succeed in Chicago or the Twin Cities, suddenly isn’t so funny.

“I’ve seen too many of my classmates move to New York or Chicago or back home to Boston because they just didn’t see an opportunity here,” says campus area Ald. Scott Resnick, vice president of Hardin Design & Development with 17 employees and co-founder of Capital Entrepreneurs, a support group for leaders of young companies.

Unfortunately, there’s a persistent rap that Madison simply lacks an entrepreneurial spirit, with many locals content with a laid-back life spent enjoying their neighborhoods, lakes, bike paths, and craft beers.

Emphasis added. I'm having flashbacks to Portland's oblomovshchina. I wouldn't worry about the brain drain. U.W. talent production should be a boon, just like it is in Pittsburgh with CMU and Pitt. But Madison doesn't refine talent. It's a resort for intellectuals. If you want to make your mark and economically develop yourself, you leave.