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Last updated: Saturday, 14-Mar-2009 19:10:28 Central Daylight Time


UW-River Falls: A Leadership Role in a Regional Economy
By Brenda Kramer
UW-RF Public Affairs

UW-River Falls journalism major Roe Pressley is unfazed by his 20-plus mile commute along the St. Croix River from Stillwater, Minn., to campus. "Aside from liquor store hours and gas prices, this area has always seemed like the same state to me," says Pressley, who lives and works in Stillwater. "I was born in River Falls and grew up in Stillwater. But I've kept my roots as far as cheering for the Packers, eating cheese, and proclaiming that Wisconsin is generally better."

The notion of an invisible border between the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin--an area sometimes affectionately called Wis-ota or Minne-sconsin--resonates among area residents, as well as the U.S. Census, which situates Wisconsin's St. Croix and Pierce counties within the Twin Cities Metropolitan Statistical Area.

"The residents themselves don't see the borders," says Barb Nemecek, dean of the UW-RF College of Business and Economics, who spoke about invisible borders at the third annual Wisconsin Economic Summit last fall in Milwaukee. "We think of it as completely transparent. We live in one county, work in another, go to school in yet another."

A regional service area

Because UW-RF is just 30 minutes east of Minneapolis/St. Paul, some 31 percent--or 1,624--of its 5,300 students cross the river to campus. Another 943 students from Minnesota live in the residence halls. Tuition reciprocity, an agreement negotiated between border states, makes that exchange possible. Under reciprocity, students pay tuition comparable to a similar institution in their own state.

"Like tax reciprocity, tuition reciprocity makes so much sense because the Twin Cities economic region extends into western Wisconsin," says Alan Tuchtenhagen, UW-RF admissions director. "Our biggest feeder schools are Hudson, New Richmond and Prescott, and in Minnesota, Hastings, Woodbury, Stillwater, Oakdale and Cottage Grove. Because so many people are working and going to school between the borders it makes sense to make the border more invisible."

Alumni also continue to call the region "home." Almost half of UW-RF's 29,000 living alumni remain in the area, with 8,000 of 10,900 Minnesota alumni residing in the Twin Cities, and 5,500 of 13,250 Wisconsin alums living in Polk, Pierce and St. Croix counties. Regional job opportunities, quality of life, abundant recreation and natural resources, family and friends all factor in the decision to remain in UW-RF's service region after graduation.

Nuances of a regional economy

The area is distinct, Nemecek says, because the urban Twin Cities is paired with Wisconsin's primarily rural counties, rather than the typical urban-urban match of bi-state metropolitan areas. This brings both challenges and opportunities. "We need to develop niche strategies that work in our specific border area, including strategies by industries that highlight our strengths, so that the Twin Cities has reasons to work with us," says Nemecek. "It's not a matter of competing but of working together."

Like residents, many businesses seek quality of life, easy access to the Twin Cities, and education opportunities for employees when they relocate or expand. "Businesses are looking for proximity to suppliers, their distribution market, a skilled workforce and the resources of technical colleges and universities," says Ken McAdams, director of development in western Wisconsin for Forward Wisconsin, a public-private marketing organization. "The schools, particularly the universities, play a very important role. UW-River Falls is known for biotechnology, chemistry and agriculture and because of the available talent pool of graduates and technical assistance the university can provide."

Emphasizing the idea of a distinct region, UW-RF has hosted four forums over the last three years on building a regional economic agenda, financing entrepreneurial enterprise, educating the workforce and labor market conditions.

"There are some really effective economic development organizations as well as the Metropolitan Council working on both sides of the river, but we've never struck up a really solid consortium," notes Nemecek. "We need to increase, coordinate and develop a more comprehensive plan for the region. One example is the I-94 technology zone. In doing so we need to develop collaborative arrangements with the Minnesota side as well. This will yield the greatest results."

The state recently designated Polk, St. Croix, Pierce, Dunn, Chippewa and Eau Claire counties as the Interstate-94 Corridor Technology Zone to provide tax incentives to attract or expand biotechnology or other high tech industries. According to Jerry Chasteen, executive director of the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, the tech zone's strengths include the proximity to the Twin Cities and ample educational resources, including three UW campuses--River Falls, Stout and Eau Claire--and two technical colleges. "There is a lot of recent effort to look at the Interstate 94 corridor as a region, and designation of the tech zone reinforces that," says Chasteen.

Western Wisconsin enjoys a strong regional identity as part of the St. Croix Valley, says Mark Kinders, UW-RF public affairs director and past president of the St. Croix Valley Regional Tourism Alliance, a bi-state tourism marketing group. "As identified in the economic summits on campus and across the state, there are distinct regions throughout Wisconsin," he says. "The great advantage to the St. Croix Valley is that we are designated by Congress as a national scenic riverway. That regional identity--in essence a national park--gives the valley an advantage for tourism, economic development and other partnerships."

The area's regionalism was recognized in the late 1960s and early 1970s when citizens, led by then-senators Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) and Walter Mondale (D-Minn.), sought protection and distinction through the National Wild and Scenic Riverways Act. This foresight ensured that decades of citizens and visitors would enjoy a high quality of life provided by the economic, recreational, natural and cultural resources of the valley, says Kinders.

Like regionalism, globalization is on the minds of area leaders as well. While the proximity to the Twin Cities has caused growth concerns along the river, area leaders recognize that it's a microcosm of a global society. "We are a part of the Twin Cities regional economy when you look at things from a global perspective," says Clarence Malick, St. Croix County board chair and former executive director of the Minnesota-Wisconsin Boundary Area Commission, a group focusing on regional issues that existed from 1965 to 2001. " If we in western Wisconsin want to compete on a global basis, we are going to have to attract professionals who are not currently living here, including biotech and innovative entrepreneurial types."

A multifaceted role in a regional economy

UW-RF's regional presence offers opportunities for both formal and informal partnerships. "Universities serve the people of the region," says Chancellor Ann Lydecker. "Our role is bringing constituents together, helping in terms of research and knowledge transfer, and playing a facilitative educational role in being able to move forward."

The metro area proximity also brings diversity and opportunities for student internships, job fairs, faculty externships, knowledge exchange and cooperative programs. Increasingly, the university's "soft" skills, including facilitated decision-making and strategic planning with a neutral backdrop, are as in demand as its "hard" skills, which involve faculty expertise, technical assistance and identification of collaborative resources. Several ongoing endeavors highlight the University's 2003-05 strategic objective of expanding its role within the St. Croix Valley.

Opportunities for Creative Collaborations

As the regional economy changes, so do University priorities. An economic downturn isn't entirely bleak, says Lydecker. "The changing economy has provided an opportunity for us to rethink what is most essential. A lot of good people are coming together and thinking creatively how we can find the synergy to carry us into the future," says Lydecker.

"When you sit near a state border you are dealing with two large units that may be going in different ways in terms of economic development and growth, and yet those of us who are living in these areas, we don't see the difference," says Lydecker. "You think in commonalties rather than differences. The fast growth of this area in the last 10 years has the potential for really impacting a broader region economically. And we intend to help lead the way."

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