RACINE — Under new leadership, the state’s economic development agency is taking a targeted, region-by-region approach with the intent of bolstering job growth in Wisconsin.
Newly appointed Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation Chief Executive Officer Reed Hall gave that assurance to Racine-area leaders Wednesday, as Hall and Gov. Scott Walker toured the state promoting the agency, and touting its possibilities to help grow local business and meet Walker’s 250,000-job promise under new leadership.
“There will be some changes,” said Hall, WEDC’s former interim director. “I think you’re going to see a renewed emphasis on the region, working with people here and around the state.”
Walker and Hall pointed to southeastern Wisconsin’s reputation as the state’s manufacturing center and its proximity to neighboring Illinois as positives when it came not just to building up current industries, but attracting out-of-state businesses as well.
WEDC, the state’s quasi-public flagship job agency, has had its share of trouble, facing staffing and accountability problems following its inception in 2011.
Walker and Hall acknowledged the agency’s less-than-perfect track record as a learning opportunity and a chance for improvement. Hall mentioned that an audit on the agency and subsequent report “have given us a road map to pursue” in terms of improving computer systems and hiring new financial officers and staff as the agency moves forward.
When asked if WEDC was looking to increase transparency, Hall responded, “Clearly, we are.”
Those past problems aside, some Democratic groups took issue with Hall himself Wednesday, criticizing Hall’s qualifications after the governor picked him over a search committee’s recommendations.
State Democratic Party Spokesman Graeme Zielinski said between Hall’s previous donations to Walker’s campaign and a past speech delivered by Hall to a Tea Party group, it seemed apparent that the governor was rewarding a political ally.
The governor said Wednesday that every search committee member mentioned their appreciation of and support for Hall, and listed the former Marshfield Clinic executive director’s experience there, as well as work on the Manufacturers and Commerce committee and his passion as qualifying factors. Hall offered assurances that, although he spoke on the Affordable Care Act at a Tea Party event, he was by no means a member, or otherwise affiliated with the group.
Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, Kenosha, whose district includes most of Mount Pleasant, expressed optimism about Hall, but not without similar reservations.
“I had hoped that a nationwide search at significant taxpayer expense would bring a CEO with extensive economic development experience to turn around our state’s troubled jobs agency,” noted Barca, a WEDC board member, in a statement. “Reed Hall seems like a capable businessperson and I stand ready to work with anyone — including the new CEO, the governor and the rest of the WEDC board — to help achieve our economic goals.”