Barb LaMue’s first year as president & CEO of New North, Inc. has been an eventful one. She worked with businesses, municipalities and economic development organizations across the region on key initiatives, including attracting and retaining talent and creating the NEW Launch Alliance to help entrepreneurs bring their ideas to life. Then in March, the COVID-19 pandemic upended the region’s economy. LaMue, who joined New North from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., talked with Insight about the vital role New North can play in helping businesses recover.
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Wisconsin and the Safer at Home order went into effect, New North was one of the first economic development organizations to step forward and begin putting plans into motion.
Barb LaMue: The first thing we realized we needed to do was consolidate and coordinate information. Everyone was just so starved to get information. There’s a lot out there, but we wanted to make sure the information we are sharing is relevant and accurate. The goal was to provide the right information at the right time. We felt in the New North, we needed to make sure our local partners — economic development corporations, chambers of commerce, business communities and the county economic development professionals — were all aligning our messaging on how to prepare companies to first get through this and then providing help to employees being displaced. We also wanted to really identify areas where we can come out of this in perhaps a better position than some other regions.
As the demand for additional personal protective equipment increased, were you surprised how many New North companies stepped forward to help?
It didn’t surprise me just because I know the ingenuity that comes out of our companies here in northeastern Wisconsin. A lot of it was really in our swing zone. What they were looking for — masks, gowns and medical caps —are all converted products, and that’s our sweet spot. Those are things that we knew our companies could do, and we weren’t surprised they stepped forward to make those items for the greater good. You’re not making a lot of money off of this, but they realized it was what was needed to get us through this crisis mode, and so it didn’t surprise me that they responded as they had.
The New North also has a strong collaborative relationship with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. How does that affect the region’s economy?
I recently had a conversation with WEDC Secretary (Missy) Hughes about a variety of opportunities — how we can help the state and how the WEDC can help our region. We feel good about the position we are in. We’ve talked about the EDA (U.S. Economic Development Administration) funding — federal funds that will soon be available — and how several projects in our region can take advantage of that. We will work with our local partners on getting those applications submitted. There are some things that may be better suited as a statewide focus, and then out of that statewide application, the New North, for example, would be identified as a pilot region.
Before COVID-19 turned the economy upside down, the No. 1 concern among business owners was finding enough qualified employees. That’s been a major initiative for the New North in recent years.
We know talent attraction is a long-term play. There are a lot of great initiatives across the region that we are working with local partners on, including talent attraction. With unemployment in double digits, it is a challenge to talk about, but many of our companies — especially our manufacturers — still need workers. That’s going to involve retraining, upskilling and helping the underserved. We think the most immediate need is helping our underserved population or under-skilled get the credentialing and the skills they need to fill these open jobs.
Another aspect that’s come out of the pandemic is that some people are rethinking where they want to live. Maybe they no longer want to live in New York City or some other large metropolitan area since those areas have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. We are making sure we continue to position our region as a great place for people to come start or expand their careers, raise a family if they choose to do so, and engage in the community.
Collaboration is one of the New North’s core values, and it’s one word I’ve heard numerous times describing the region. Why do you think people here are willing to step up and collaborate with one another?
Our collaborative spirit is a real strength of our region. I think collaboration is maybe embedded in us, and we have that understanding we’re all better together. People have witnessed the wins that have been achieved for our region because of that collaboration, and success breeds success. One great example of collaboration now is how everybody is on the same page of what we can do to help our businesses and our communities recover. It’s making sure that our messages are aligned and designing programs and initiatives that are going to benefit not just one community but the region. Another recent example is Fincantieri Marinette Marine’s new giant contract with the Navy. It isn’t just a win for the people of Marinette, but everyone in the region since the company has so many suppliers in the area. And that growth will help others to grow.
The New North is a large region. Is it challenging at times to make sure everyone is at the table?
Yes, it can be a challenge just because of our region’s size. We have 1.25 million people in 18 counties, but I would say our mission at New North has always been to develop regional strategic initiatives in business and talent development. And those are two very broad buckets that everybody can get behind. Everybody has a story. Everybody has a need. Everybody has a solution as to how we address those two major goals within our region, so that brings everyone together because they can see themselves in the conversation.