It may not be a well-known fact in the area, but the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp. is just one of the 29 accredited economic development programs in the nation. That fact – along with the area’s close proximity to the state’s three population hubs – drew Steve Jenkins northward from Topeka, Kansas, to take on leadership of Fond du Lac County’s vibrant economic program.
Jenkins, who started in February, replaced Brenda Hicks-Sorensen, who left the FCEDC to take a leading role in the new Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. Jenkins had watched the program for a while and when the position opened up, he couldn’t pass up applying.
“There’s a very talented staff here in Fond du Lac and it’s also a vibrant community right in the middle of Milwaukee, Madison and the Fox Valley,” he says. “There’s so much potential here. It’s very exciting.”
The region’s strong manufacturing heritage is another draw, and one Jenkins hopes to capitalize on as he looks to bring more businesses to the region and to strengthen ties with businesses already here. The FCEDC played an integral role in 2009 in brokering an agreement that kept the county’s largest manufacturer here – Mercury Marine. Since the outboard maker decided to keep its Fond du Lac operations, it has brought 150 jobs to the area from a plant in Stillwater, Okla.
“We need to renew our relationships with our major employers. I want to build productive relationships with the decision makers in our communities,” Jenkins says.
Growing businesses already here is just one part of Jenkins’ vision for strengthening the economy throughout the county. He’s also focused on growing small businesses and entrepreneurs through the FCEDC’s Impact! Economic Gardening Program and attracting new businesses to the region. The gardening program is aimed at growing economies from within by assisting businesses with specialized tools and services.
As for attracting new businesses, Jenkins knows that’s not easy, especially since every other community is trying to do the same thing. The FCEDC last year completed a spec building visible from Highway 41 that it is now working with consultants to market to either an existing business in Fond du Lac or a business completely new to the area.
“We are looking at an aggressive campaign with targeted sectors and site selectors,” Jenkins says. “The world has changed dramatically and we need to understand how to compete in this new world. The path to economic success in Fond du Lac requires a three-pronged approach: growing small businesses, attracting new businesses and renewing our relationships with strong local businesses.”
Before arriving in Fond du Lac, Jenkins was senior vice president of economic development at the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce/GO Topeka. Jenkins also holds his Certified Economic Developer (CEcD) designation.
Building for the future
The FCEDC isn’t the only business organization in Fond du Lac to have a new leader. Earlier this year, Steve Little became CEO and president of Agnesian HealthCare, one of the area’s largest employers. Little took over for Robert Hale, who retired after serving as CEO for 16 years. While he is new to his position, Little is not new to Agnesian. He joined the health care provider in 2003 as chief financial officer and became the system’s executive vice president in 2010.
Agnesian had a busy 2011 with the completion of an extensive remodeling project at St. Agnes Hospital in Fond du Lac, an expansion and remodeling project at Waupun Memorial Hospital and the affiliation with Ripon Medical Center. On the horizon for this year are technology improvements and developing plans to replace the aging Ripon Medical Center.
The $25 million project at St. Agnes created private patient rooms on three floors in a patient tower that was built six years ago. In addition, some rooms in the other parts of the hospital were also renovated. The new rooms have the look and feel of a hotel room with in-room refrigerator, a safe for valuables, wireless connectivity, a ceramic tile walk-in shower that resembles a spa and ample space for family members to stay overnight.
“The changes allow the caregivers to spend more time at the bedside instead of running about looking for information or equipment,” Little says. “The changes have been very well received. The goal of all of our projects is to provide the best patient care in a safe environment.”
Technology underlines all of Agnesian’s projects. With every upgrade, the health care system is moving closer to its goal of being paperless by this September. “We want our providers to have access to all patient records whether they are in Fond du Lac, Waupun or Ripon. This will provide better continuity of care,” Little says.
In Ripon, Agnesian purchased 20 acres of land adjacent to the current Fond du Lac Regional Clinic just off Highway 23. Facility planning and development are under way with the goal of breaking ground later this year and the hospital being completed 18 months after construction starts.
While plans have yet to be finalized, Agnesian is looking to build an 80,000-square-foot hospital with 25 beds and a 25,000-square-foot medical office building.
Several Fond du Lac manufacturers look to add space as business picks up. Mercury Marine, for example, built an extension between two of its Fond du Lac facilities to house additional work to move to the area from a shuttered Oklahoma plant.
Basic American Medical Products recently completed a 40,000-square-foot expansion of its Fond du Lac facility. The expansion allows Basic American Medical Products, a manufacturer of health care beds, to add a new, state-of-the-art fiber optic laser tube cutting system.
“This major manufacturing space expansion, fiber optic laser installation and a commitment to producing high quality products translates to a more competitive company. The market for our products will continue to grow each year for the foreseeable future and these investments will enable us to remain a competitive force in the health care market,” says Bob Heus, director of production operations for the company.
Grande Cheese Co., which markets and sells cheese products through a distribution network serving independent pizzerias and Italian casual dining restaurants, is also looking to expand in Fond du Lac.
About a year ago, the company purchased 40 acres of land west of Agnesian’s Fond du Lac Surgery Center, where it plans to build a new corporate headquarters. Currently, the company’s headquarters are in Lomira.
The new headquarters will be built in the next two to four years, says Wayne Matzke, president and CEO of Grande Cheese. Right now, about 150 people work at the Lomira office.
“We are looking to the future and believe there are opportunities to grow,” Matzke says. “This site will allow us to build a new home office and technology center.”
Grande has a dicing and packaging facility in Fond du Lac, as well as a shipping and distribution warehouse. Combined, the operations employ 80 people.
The move will not impact Grande’s major manufacturing facility in Brownsville.
Another longtime Fond du Lac employer, J.F. Ahern Co., is also thinking about the future.
Last summer, the mechanical and fire contractor signed a purchase option agreement for 50 acres in Fond du Lac’s Fox Ridge Business Park.
The site, which is about 2.5 miles from the company’s headquarters, could be used to grow the company’s manufacturing operations. The company did not announce a firm timetable for the project.