Jill Didier has by no means left Wauwatosa behind.
Even though the former mayor has a bigger beat, promoting economic development throughout Milwaukee County, Tosa remains somewhat central to her efforts.
Didier is now about five months into her tenure in the new position of economic development coordinator for Milwaukee County, and her new top boss has laid out a daunting slate of duties.
Didier works directly for Brian Taffora, director of economic development, but it was County Executive Chris Abele’s vision that established them as his new, lean team for growing business and jobs.
There really was no economic development department or plan in place when he took office, Abele said, so he set out to create one.
“Our initial thinking was that a lot of economic development departments in counties, and municipalities that are big enough to have them, follow a somewhat standard model, and there are characteristics of that model that I think are maybe a little outmoded,” Abele said.
“To begin with, I don’t believe that the role of government in helping to create jobs is to do it directly. I think the public is ineffective in creating jobs when they are overly proscriptive. I always say, our role isn’t to give lectures and limits, our role is to listen and to connect and to coordinate.
“So having a staff that is best able to do that looks very different than the sort of typical economic development departments.”
Abele said his goal, then, was to “externalize” the department and instead of a “you come to us” model, he would have someone who would spend their time connecting not only with all the county’s 19 city and village governments and with the state, but also with every chamber of commerce and every job training organization, including colleges and high schools, plus being available to businesses and institutions themselves, large and small.
His candidate also needed to be “aware of people who can finance – not just banks and their venture arms and their small business loan arms, but venture groups and every incubator that we can find.”
“So the primary idea behind having a more external staff was to make those connections, to communicate and to listen, and to catalyze and coordinate,” Abele said.
“And since one of the observations that’s been made about the county’s previous efforts was that it was not reaching out as much as it could to the municipalities, I thought, you know, if you need somebody to focus on that kind of connection, you could hardly do better than somebody who had been the mayor of the municipality with as much development potential as any, and who has a sophisticated knowledge of economic development, someone who cares about it and enjoys doing it, who is a great connector.
“I was very excited just to get opportunity to bring Jill on board.”
Tosa is in the middle of the mix
Wauwatosa’s place in the sphere of metropolitan Milwaukee is perhaps larger than many people realize. The city’s chief elected official sits on more outside boards and commissions than any other suburb, some by choice, some by election and some by mandate.
For instance, Wauwatosa is the only municipality besides Milwaukee with a permanent partnership and board seat on VISIT Milwaukee – which is where Abele and Didier met, when he was newly appointed.
Didier had also been elected to the board of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and had recently been appointed by Gov. Scott Walker to the state’s Council on Workforce Investment.
“That’s something I’m kind of proud of,” Didier said, “is that I’ve been asked to stay on the board of VISIT and on the Workforce Council.
“The governor looked at that appointment and, even though it was made to me as mayor, he decided there was a role for this position with the county.”
Didier says, though, that it isn’t how many seats you hold, it’s what you make of them.
“You can be appointed to boards and commissions,” she said, “but what you can contribute is different depending on who you are. I think that the value I brought to the table was important not only to Wauwatosa but in building those relationships and contributing in a lot of different ways.”
“Those opportunities are what you make of them,” Abele said, “and there are some people who make more of them than others.”
Big things on the horizon
Wauwatosa is also central to the county’s role with the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, Research Park and everything collectively known as the “County Grounds institutions.”
“Specifically in Wauwatosa, the DOT is redoing the Zoo Interchange,” Abele said. “It’s a massive project, the busiest intersection in the state, and a lot of investment is going in, and the county has land and property all around it.
“So in our dealings with the DOT, there’s a lot of decisions we’re making now that are going to have a lot of impact, so having someone who is as familiar as anybody with the institutions around there, the land, the properties, is just a huge, huge asset.”
You have to sweat the small stuff
Years of planning for that project have given Didier a head start, but big picture programs are not her sole focus.
As an example of her day-to-day work, Didier related how she was able to help one small business grow.
“One municipality had a business that wanted to expand and add perhaps another five jobs,” she said, “but due to economic times its credit had reached its limit and they really didn’t know what to do.
“This municipality didn’t really have a strong economic development department, but due to my relationship with them, they reached out to me and I was able to put them together with an entity that could help with that particular type of financing.
“This was a long-established company, I think more than 30 years in business, and these were good-paying, family-supporting jobs.”
Didier also has helped match up a group of veterans who were trying to start a business with people willing to hire them and investors willing to provide financing.
Helping out those smaller entities when they need it is every bit as important as working on the long-term, large-gain projects, Didier said.
“Something like 80 percent of all economic development actually comes from small business,” she said. “My philosophy is we have to have parallel tracks. We have to keep those two conversations going simultaneously.”
Reaching out to the masses
Didier said her mantra is “connect, convene and communicate” – whether one-on-one, as in helping a small business grow, or in a larger forum.
“On May 30,” she said, “we’re going to host an event at the Harbor Lights Room, in the Transit Center, and it’s open, free to anybody, but the focus is primarily municipalities and their planning departments and economic development departments.
“What I found in my role as mayor is that for a lot of the smaller municipalities, there is often a disconnect between what they can do for themselves and what they can do in a larger sphere, and who can assist
“We’re going to host M7 and the WEDC (Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.), and they’re going to each present. And they weren’t chosen at random, they’re groups that I had established relationships with.
“So that was kind of an easy one for me to kick off, in the sense of convening people in mass, more than one-on-one.”
All in all, Didier is pleased in her new job and eager to move forward. She’s also relieved to have a little more consistency in her daily schedule – mayors spend a lot of time attending meetings, events and ceremonies nights and weekends, she said.
The only difficulty, she said, is that one thing she did religiously as mayor was to leave at 3 p.m. to pick up her kids from school, something she can’t do anymore.
“It was a big deal to me to be able to do that,” she said. “And you know what? To not be able to do it – well, it turns out it’s way harder on me than it is on them.”