Audra Hoy believes that Oshkosh sits on the precipice of greatness.
When the director of business and economic development for the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp. surveys the city, she sees it in a place it’s never been.
“Over the last decade or so, the dominoes have really been put in place,” Hoy says. “All we’ve got to do is push those over, and we’re off to the races.”
Hoy attributes much of the excitement to cultivating a thriving central city, thanks to community and developer support. “It’s very clear the community wants to be engaged.”
Downtown Oshkosh sits in the center of it all. With a trend toward people wanting to live in the center of their cities, Jason White, CEO of the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp. (GOEDC) says Oshkosh is ahead of the curve. Compared with surrounding communities, a higher percentage of the resident population lives in downtown Oshkosh.
“Really, there’s a large focal center around the downtown,” White says.
The city has also made large strides in multi-family residential development this year, says Rob Kleman, senior vice president of economic development for the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce.
Developments recently completed or set to begin include:
• 82-unit luxury living multi-family complex on Marion Road, opened in May 2015
• 40-unit Rivers II senior housing complex on Marion Road, opened in fall 2016
• 20-unit Washington Place Historic Flats on Washington Avenue, an upper-scale, adaptive reuse multi-family building, to be completed in January 2017
• 22-unit historic renovation of the Beach Building, an adaptive reuse, multi-family building, completed in December 2016
• Morgan District development on the northwest corner of Sixth and Oregon streets, including a 25,000-square-foot grocery store and 120 new multi-family units above the retail, to begin in 2017
Kleman hopes the increased housing options, coupled with new restaurants like downtown’s Ruby Owl Tap Room, will help draw the kind of employees companies aim to attract.
“Those employees want to live, work and play in this kind of neat environment that’s being created downtown.”
Expansions lead to new jobs
The past two years have seen several Oshkosh companies expand, leading to creation of jobs. The list includes Bemis Health Care Packaging, automotive web design and marketing firm DealerFire/DealerSocket and 4imprint.
Of course, the $6.7 billion contract Oshkosh Corp. won in 2015 also plays a huge role in the city’s positive outlook.
The company is the city’s largest employer, and it had been in a down cycle for a few years because contracts were wrapping up, White says.
“When Oshkosh Corp. had their layoffs a few years ago, that represented 1 percent of the state’s entire GDP lost, so that gives you a sense of how one company can impact the entire state’s economy,” White says. “When they landed that contract last year, it was a big sigh of relief for our community.”
Kleman anticipates that production for the order will ramp up in 2017 and 2018, leading to creation of engineering and manufacturing jobs.
White observes that Oshkosh Corp. has shown itself as a company that’s willing to invest in the community.
“I think that bodes very well for the stability of our economic future combined with all the other exciting new initiatives we have going on to try to focus on diversifying our economic base so we’re not solely reliant on them as our economic driver,” White says.
An IT revolution
A big part of that diversification lies in the IT sector, Kleman says. Northeast Wisconsin accounts for 14.5 percent of IT jobs in the state, according to the Oshkosh Chamber, and it projects strong growth in the next 10 years.
Seeing that Northeast Wisconsin IT jobs are projected to grow at 21 percent over the next decade, the chamber formed a group called Amplify, a consortium of 40 businesses and education partners working together to heighten awareness of the IT sector. The group’s InnovateIT event in November drew more than 200 attendees from around the region.
“We know we need to ramp up the effort to recruit a tech-related skilled workforce,” Kleman says.
A continued tradition of aviation
Oshkosh is synonymous with aviation, but Hoy is still working to spread the word that the city is open for business when it comes to the industry.
The city’s 80-acre Aviation Business Park is home to companies such as Sonex Aircraft and Basler Turbo Conversions. GOEDC’s White sees continuing to prospect for more businesses as a priority.
Hoy wants companies to know Oshkosh is an option and has space available. “When people hear Oshkosh and aviation, they don’t necessarily realize we’re open for business.”
To help businesses throughout Oshkosh, GOEDC works with the City of Oshkosh and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to offer the Greater Oshkosh Capital Catalyst Fund. It provides businesses a grant or loan of $10,000 to $100,000.
“Here in the Fox Valley we have a lot of mature industry and a lot of second- and third-generation businesses,” White says. “I think we need to establish a pipeline for new, emerging businesses as well.”
He believes the Capital Catalyst Fund provides a step toward that and that the fund helps create a culture of entrepreneurship.
In addition, the organization offers a revolving loan fund, a low-interest loan that is available to help businesses grow and expand, Hoy says.
I-41 Corridor vital for growth
While Oshkosh is doing well, Kleman knows that regional collaboration is key to ongoing success. In 2016, the city partnered with Fond du Lac, Green Bay and the Fox Cities to brand the region as the I-41 Corridor.
“That designation of I-41 is significant from a marketing perspective,” Kleman says. “We’re going to bear the fruits of that for years to come.”
The corridor has brought in a lot of chain development in the past year, including HuHot Mongolian Grill, Ulta Beauty and Five Guys, Kleman says.
The efforts have paid off based on the comments from site selectors who toured the region in October. At a debrief session following their visit, they were uniform in their praise in the wisdom of taking a regional approach and encouraged continued collaboration.
Challenges to address
The outlook in Oshkosh is remarkably good overall, with the possibility of landing the Milwaukee Bucks D-League team still on the horizon and investigation of a restoration of the Pioneer Inn underway, however, the city is still working to address some challenges.
In meeting with one company recently, White learned that one out of four of its employees doesn’t have a means of transportation to work.
“These are issues that the majority of us don’t worry about but that impact our workers and employers,” Hoy says.
GOEDC is looking at ways to expand existing services to provide connections between where people live and where they work, White says.
With new jobs come the ever-present concern of the gap in the number of skilled workers available. “While we have large potential to continue to increase the number of jobs, our population isn’t growing as fast as we’re creating jobs, so we need to continue to promote our area for people to move to and families to live,” White says.
To address the shortage, GOEDC is promoting programs that are readily available like Fast Forward training at the state level as well as partnering with UW-Oshkosh, Fox Valley Technical College and the Workforce Development Board.
Overall, though, Hoy remains optimistic about the future of Oshkosh.
“My most immediate hope and dream for Oshkosh is to keep up the momentum we have going right now,” Hoy says. “Hopefully we’re building a community our kids will be proud of in 20 years.”