These days, branding is everything.
Shawano is on a mission to create a better experience for both visitors and residents. Last summer, Shawano and Menominee counties worked with tourism and community branding expert Roger Brooks to devise a way to better sell the region to visitors and prospective residents.
Brooks and his team conducted a “secret shopping” tour of communities within the counties, interviewing 60 community and business leaders and surveying more than 650 residents and visitors to gather their opinions on what makes the area special.
Brooks reported the good — and the bad — to leaders and community members in a four-hour presentation. He recommended identifying one way in which the area stands out and focusing on that — Brooks helped Wisconsin Dells develop its Waterpark Capital of the World slogan.
“The report we got out of it gives a clear brand strategy,” says Nancy Smith, executive director of the Shawano Country Chamber of Commerce.
The branding is based on the Wolf River’s “Wild and Scenic” national designation. The counties will focus on selling the region as the best place in the Midwest for whitewater rafting and kayaking. Next steps include hiring an agency to craft creative and visual elements for the campaign.
Dennis Heling, chief economic development officer for Shawano, says it was exciting to see communities around the region — from Wittenberg to Keshena to Gresham — collaborate on the project.
Shawano also is addressing an issue that affects many rural communities statewide: broadband access. Many areas of the county are underserved, Heling says.
Gov. Scott Walker recently announced the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin awarded $7.68 million in broadband expansion grants. Shawano is working to apply for a future round of grant funding.
Heling says broadband access is essential for people who telecommute from Shawano as well as businesses such as campgrounds. Judge not. Even people on vacation want to be connected. Furthermore, it’s one of the No. 1 things people ask about when they’re looking at houses, Smith adds.
Shawano is showing positive signs of becoming a community that can attract young professionals. A pair of brothers is transforming a 1915 vaudeville theater in downtown Shawano, aiming to revitalize the area, preserve history, draw tourists and show other young people what the area has to offer.
Aaron Gilling, 30, and his brother, Erik Gilling, 28, purchased the old Crescent Theater building two years ago and plan to open Stubborn Brothers Brewery in December. It joins Anew Tea Emporium, Antiques and Gourmet, owned by young entrepreneurs Chelsea Stock Gilling (the Gilling brothers’ sister-in-law) and Abigael Lauren.
Aaron Gilling, who grew up in nearby Marion and earned his doctorate in physical therapy in Milwaukee, says the amount of community support he’s received for the venture has been astounding.
In addition to investing their own money and receiving financial support from their parents, the city of Shawano provided the Gillings with tax incremental financing to help with the development. In turn, the two have embraced the community. Their active Facebook page asked for community help in determining the brewery’s flooring and wall colors.
“As a young entrepreneur, nothing is more powerful than people behind you who are just actively pushing you to do better,” Aaron Gilling says.
The project has proved a massive — and gratifying — undertaking. The two aim to preserve the building’s defining features, including hand-molded, hand-carved plaster and pressed tin ceilings. Throughout the process, they’ve uncovered treasures such as stained glass windows hidden behind plywood and an original poster of 1943 movie “Lassie Come Home” from the building’s second incarnation as a movie theater.
Growing up on a dairy farm, the Gillings are no strangers to hard work. Aaron Gilling continues to work full-time as a physical therapist for Aspirus Home Health, and Erik Gilling recently graduated from dental school and will practice in Marion while the two prepare for the brewery’s debut.
The brewery will have eight brews on tap, from porters to IPAs to whiskey and bourbon barrel beers, as well as 14 more available to members of the Stubborn Brothers mug club. People can purchase a membership for $10 to $15.
Erik Gilling says they’re excited to be part of the community. “I think us respecting the history of the building adds a lot of awe when people come in here and a desire to be here,” he says.
Waupaca tackles workforce needs
To address ubiquitous worker shortages, Waupaca County is turning to its young people.
“From the chamber standpoint, we’re really focusing on our future workforce, so we’ve really been doing a lot more with the school district in Waupaca,” says Terri Schulz, president of the Waupaca Area Chamber of Commerce.
The organization is creating Your Future Waupaca Area, based on the career planning software used by several area chambers, including Fox Cities and Green Bay. It’s also ramping up career fair efforts. A recent senior job fair offering full- and part-time positions drew 24 companies. In 2019, a dedicated manufacturing program — Comet Manufacturing — will open within Waupaca High School.
Waupaca also brought in some important community resources. With the help of a $50,000 grant from the Tim and Joy Neuville Family Fund, children and teen mental health provider Catalpa Health opened an office in Waupaca. Big Brothers Big Sisters and the mental health outreach group NAMI operate on the same campus. In the past, families often endured long drives and months-long waits for services.
The communities within Waupaca County also are looking at housing needs and advancing community development projects. Waupaca hasn’t seen a lot of new single-family housing of late, and it needs more affordable housing options, says Henry Veleker, Waupaca city administrator. The city is making progress, acquiring about 20 lots in three subdivisions.
“We see some opportunities for folks to find their housing here, and they can commute to their jobs,” he says. “I think it’s a fine line that we don’t gentrify too much.”
Elsewhere in the county, New London is looking at developing a mixed-use library project, and City Administrator Kent Hager says he hopes such a development could help draw more young professionals to the area.
“It would be a wonderful opportunity to further the development downtown and have a library resource community,” he says.
Manawa is working to promote itself as a destination for family-oriented attractions and activities, such as a mini triathlon it’s hosting in June. The city is also working on a downtown revitalization project.
“We want to be that drive-to destination rather that drive-through area,” says Manawa Mayor John Smith.