A recent breakfast panel discussion with the theme of “Navigating the New Economy: The Booming Border” highlighted with precision challenges we face in our expanding economy and job market.
Attention must be placed — and resources and priorities should be focused — on more transportation and more housing options for the workers who will come here for jobs.
It will require all hands on deck, vision and compromise, as Foxconn and Haribo build, Uline continues to expand, and new companies set up here from Illinois and elsewhere.
“Location, location, location,” state Revenue Secretary Peter Barca said at the economic forum in Kenosha sponsored by the Wisconsin Academy of Global Education and Training in partnership with WisBusiness and the Kenosha News. “Kenosha County had room to expand.”
Location has a lot to do with it, and it wasn’t lost of the panel. “We’re running a lot faster than Illinois,” said Cassie Lau, Carthage College economics professor.
Some might wonder, though, given the headlines that Illinois received after approving gambling expansion and legalizing recreational marijuana.
But the biggest thing to watch is Illinois’ agreement on a $33 billion transportation plan. To fund it the state’s 19-cent gas tax doubled on July 1 and will increase annually without a vote of the legislature, and motorists will see other increases.
With that Illinois became the latest state to figure out how to fund transportation long term. “The state’s roadway network remains crucial to its economy and quality of life, and the plan approved by the General Assembly is a desperately needed investment in the reliability and safety of that system,” the AAA said.
Wisconsin’s elected leaders, on the other hand, are still unable to decide out how to fund transportation long term. The Walker administration didn’t get it done, and now divided government in Madison could not compromise in the budget process to forge an agreement like Illinois’ and other states.
By raising fees on motorists, the legislature did increase local roadwork funds by $100 million and gave a boost to the strong Amtrak Hiawatha service from Milwaukee to Chicago. Gov. Tony rejected provisions that would have allowed the Department of Transportation to spend up to $2.5 million on a study of tolling and mileage-based fees.
Wisconsin will fall behind in a key area as identified by the breakfast panel, however. Approval of a self-sustaining road and infrastructure plan is critical, and with it might spark progress on offering regional transportation that will be so important for workers who take jobs here.
Municipal and state leaders, and Republicans and Democrats, will have to work together on regional transportation, and fast.
The other key issue cited by the panel is housing, and the lack of it.
“We have to make Kenosha a place where people want to live, not just a place to work,” said state Rep. Tod Ohnstad, D-Kenosha, citing the current shortage of housing inventory.
Rents are high, homes are increasing in price, and there’s not enough of affordable apartments and homes to meet the need of a growing workforce.
Our latest monthly home sales report, for May, noted that sales are picking up. “Due to the low unemployment and even low interest rates, we are seeing a lot more buyers coming on the scene to purchase, and since it’s still a sellers’s market, sellers are still making a killing on getting top dollar for their homes,” said Mini Samuel, a broker with Mini Enterprises.
There has been a rise in condo sales too, Samuel noted, due partly to people electing to buy because rental costs are rising.
The panel was on target to identify this as priority for the region, and municipal leaders and developers must get together and increase housing options for workers.
Getting back to the Illinois comparison, what didn’t change is that state’s pension debt and high property taxes. Those likely will increase in coming years.
For residents and workers to be attracted to Kenosha County in a big way, increased transportation and housing options must be available. The “Navigating the New Economy: The Booming Border” panel identified the challenges. Hard work remains.