There is no coasting for Wisconsin’s North Coast.
While many envision a peaceful, rugged shoreline where the Northwoods meets the great lake, the tranquility bubble bursts quickly upon the sight of gray steel, welding sparks and hundreds of skilled craftsmen working on the latest ship for the U.S. Navy.
For more than a century, this is where Wisconsin has built ships. Now, the region is embarking on a long-sought effort to keep it that way.
In June, the Marinette County Association for Business and Industry, Inc. announced it purchased a parcel of land from Tyco Fire Products LP for the future home of the Wisconsin Maritime Center of Excellence. The center has been a decade-long pursuit to not only support the Fincantieri Marinette Marine supply chain, but bolster economic development across the region.
“The business and industrial incubator will be an ongoing source of economic growth as businesses are created, add jobs and grow, eventually leaving the incubator for their own facility,” says Ann Hartnell, executive director of MCABI. “The supply chain support for Fincantieri Marinette Marine and other manufacturers in Marinette County will strengthen all the industries and the shipbuilding cluster in Northeast Wisconsin. This is economic development at its best.”
The project has also received the support of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which awarded a $500,000 Brownfields grant to the MCABI to help fund site cleanup work for the new project.
Expected to open in 2017, the 23,000-square-foot building will serve as a training, educational, research and entrepreneurship center that is expected to help fuel commercial collaboration and supplier development for the shipbuilding industry.
Located adjacent to Marinette Marine, the center will include an industrial incubator and space for U.S. Naval personnel assigned to the company’s Littoral Combat Ship building program. One of the center’s key objectives will be to support the Navy’s commitment to building the LCS in Marinette through 2022 and beyond.
In mid-September, Marinette Marine launched LCS 13, the future USS Wichita, the seventh ship of the class launched from its shipyard. Four ships have already been delivered to the Navy, while outfitting of the three most recent vessels continues.
The shipyard also has six ships in various states of long-term production.
Nearly one of every three workers in Marinette County is employed in the manufacturing sector, and many of those positions are tied to the maritime industry. With the exception of Oconto County, the unemployment rate in counties of the Northwoods region runs anywhere from 1.5 to more than 4 percent higher than the state rate of 4 percent, according to September figures released by the state.
Supporting the Marinette Marine supply chain is a critical component of the new center.
“As the U.S. Navy continues to contract with Marinette Marine to build littoral combat ships, the Maritime Center for Excellence will further fortify northeastern Wisconsin’s commitment to the shipbuilding industry,” says state Rep. John Nygren, who represents the region.
Currently, there are two variants of the LCS being constructed, one at Marinette Marine and the other by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala. The Navy wants 52 of the ships for the fleet, though Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has directed a cut to 40.
There have also been pressures to select a single type of ship to complete the class, a move that would affect thousands of workers and other businesses in either location that have benefitted from the LCS program.
The site that will be home to the maritime center has been vacant for more than 50 years, and tests have determined that part of the property is environmentally contaminated. Most of the WEDC grant money will be used to remove and dispose of contaminated soil.
In 2013, the Wisconsin Building Commission approved the release of $5 million for the center of excellence.
WEDC’s Brownfields grant program provides funding to assist local governments, businesses and individuals with assessing and remediating the environmental contamination of an abandoned, idle or underused industrial or commercial facility or site.
As Marinette Marine has bolstered the region’s manufacturing output, another industry associated with the region has also enjoyed robust growth.
The region’s tourism-related businesses enjoyed another year of growth in 2015, continuing the growth of the past few years. In 2015, tourism-related businesses generated more than $245 million in direct visitor spending, an increase of 6 percent from 2014. Marinette County led the way with more than $154 million in direct visitor spending.
That surge in spending grew the industry workforce by nearly 100 positions in 2015, adding nearly $3 million to the regional payroll, according to figures from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
Nearly $1 million in additional taxes were generated for state and local government.