MADISON — With the appointment of Organic Valley executive Melissa Hughes to Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.’s fourth CEO, officials hope to bring stability — and a statewide focus — to Wisconsin’s top economic development arm.
Hughes, who will be the first woman to serve as WEDC’s secretary and comes to the department with no history of political contributions to the governor, presents some contrasts with her most recent predecessors since WEDC was formed by former Gov. Scott Walker in 2011.
Gov. Tony Evers announced the appointment Thursday and said in a news release Hughes, who has spent the last 15-plus years as general counsel with Organic Valley/CROPP cooperative, will take a full, 72-county approach to economic development to create middle-class jobs across the state.
“With her background helping small businesses and family farms, coupled with her experience navigating complex governmental, regulatory, trade, and business matters, Missy Hughes will be an incredible asset to our team as we work to grow an economy that works for everyone,” Gov. Evers said in the news release.
Hughes will take the helm of a public-private agency that dispenses more than $3.1 billion a year in tax credits, grants, loans and bonds. The entity also comes with a history of negative audits, media reports about questionable loans and accusations of mismanagement.
“Having worked in a high growth business for many years, with the goal of helping farmers stay on their farms now and for the coming generations, I am excited to bring my experience to the Evers Administration, and I look forward to helping all of Wisconsin thrive,” Hughes said in a news release.
An Evers’ spokesperson said Hughes would not be available for an interview Thursday.
Walker formed the WEDC in 2011 as a replacement for the state’s Department of Commerce.
The agency has drawn criticism over the years for failing to adequately track job creation and incentives.
WEDC negotiated record-breaking financial incentives with Foxconn Technology Group, a Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer, to bring an electronics manufacturing campus to Racine County. The company could receive more than $4 billion in state and local tax subsidies if it invests $10 billion and creates 13,000 jobs in Wisconsin over 15 years.
In addition, audits by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau have pointed to issues with how the agency has tracked job creation and awards given to companies over the years.
WEDC’s first CEO, Paul Jadin left the job amid disagreements with Walker, who at the time served as chairman of the agency’s board of directors. He joined the Madison Region Economic Partnership in late 2012.
Jadin’s replacement, Marshfield Clinic’s retired executive director Reed Hall, had been serving as interim CEO until Walker hired him to officially lead the agency. Hall, who did not formally apply for the position, was selected over three finalists.
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Hall departed the agency in 2015 and was replaced by retired banking executive Mark Hogan, one of Walker’s long-time political supporters. Hogan contributed close to $25,000 to the former Governor’s campaign before his appointment and donated $10,000 to a Super PAC supporting Walker’s presidential campaign, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Hogan official resigned Tuesday after four years leading WEDC.
Meanwhile, Matt Rothschild, WDC executive director, said Hughes appears to have kept her money out of state politics. He said Thursday he hadn’t found any contributions from Hughes to Evers’ campaign. A search of all contributions from Organic Valley employees to partisan candidates and LCCs since 2011 found a total of $312 in contributions to Evers.
Twenty-eight people applied for the WEDC secretary position, Erin Deeley, assistant legal counsel for Evers said.
Hughes was selected from a list of six finalists, according to application documents obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal. Other finalists included Elmer Moore Jr., executive director of regional economic development group Scale Up Milwaukee; Sam Rikkers, strategic economic initiatives director with the Wisconsin Department of Administration; Brian Taffora, principal with the Michael Best Strategies consulting firm; Carrie Thome, former Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation CIO; and Jamie Wall, former strategic and operational management consultant with Askeaton Advisors in Green Bay.
Hughes joined La Farge-based Organic Valley in 2003 as chief mission officer and general counsel. The cooperative of organic livestock, dairy and vegetable farmers was created in 1988. The cooperative has more than 2,000 family farms and annual sales exceeding $1 billion.
“As someone with a connection to the Coulee Region, I have enjoyed working with Ms. Hughes through her work at Organic Valley. Ms. Hughes has extensive knowledge in business, leadership and management and her experience will be a valuable asset for the state of Wisconsin,” Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in an email.
A spokesperson with the Governor’s office said Hughes’ appointment requires approval from the Senate. She is expected to begin her new role on Oct. 1.
“Missy Hughes is a proven leader at one of Wisconsin’s most successful, homegrown businesses. I am confident that under her leadership, the WEDC will find innovative ways to create economic development opportunities in all 72 counties,” Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, a WEDC board member, said in a statement. “I look forward to working together with Ms. Hughes in an effort to increase transparency and accountability at the agency.”
Walker and the Republican-led Legislature in 2011 dissolved the Commerce Department and created WEDC.
Evers said during his campaign he wished to dissolve WEDC and move its functions to a fully public agency like the former Department of Commerce.
However, during December’s lame-duck legislative session, Republican lawmakers passed a law preventing Evers from appointing Hogan’s replacement before Sept. 1.