ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT – Striking a balance – Manufacturing, tourism and agriculture come together in Calumet County

Posted on Dec 7, 2012 :: Economic Development
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

The popular High Cliff State Park draws visitors from around the state, but tourism is just one of the industries that contributes to the economic growth of Calumet County. The county, which is along the east shore of Lake Winnebago, is also strongly supported by manufacturing and agriculture.

Calumet County is a microcosm for Wisconsin, blending the state’s three main industries – manufacturing, agriculture and tourism. The county along the east shore of Lake Winnebago is home to several manufacturing powerhouses, including the Ariens Co., but also has a strong farming base and is home to one of the state’s most visited state parks.

“We may be a small county geographically, but we are the second-fastest growing county looking at population,” says Julie Schmelzer, director of Calumet County’s Resource Management Department. “Manufacturing is strong, agriculture is doing phenomenal and tourism continues to grow.”

The county is also active in several regional initiatives, including the new Fox Cities Economic Corp., which was formed by the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce. “The Garner Report that came out last year showed that all of Calumet County should be included as part of the definition of the Fox Cities area, and that’s something we support,” Schmelzer says.

Calumet County is also part of the Lakeshore Industry Cluster Initiative, joining Manitowoc, Sheboygan, Kewaunee and Door counties. Its goal is to raise awareness among local businesses about what’s available locally, thereby strengthening ties and helping all businesses do better.

“We think being a part of the cluster initiative is a real benefit to our businesses and help us to form better partnerships,” Schmelzer says.

If those two initiatives weren’t enough, the county is also part of the New North’s global trade strategy initiative and looking for ways to help area businesses extend their markets overseas.

“We’ve always been a great regional partner. We’re a small county and the best way to use our resources is to partner with other counties instead of duplicating services here,” Schmelzer says.

The county has a strong economic outlook with its two largest industries – agriculture and manufacturing – both doing well. “We have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the state and I attribute it to the strength of agriculture and manufacturing,” Schmelzer says.

M-B Company Inc., a maker of pavement marking equipment, accessories and sweeping equipment with operations in Chilton and New Holstein, is one of those strong manufacturers. The company is taking over a vacant grocery store in Chilton and converting it into a manufacturing facility, says Shawn Reilly, Chilton’s community development director. “That’s a big win for us since those spots can be hard to fill,” he says.

Another Chilton manufacturer – Backyard Nature Products – is also expanding. The company, which designs and manufactures outdoor products under the Birds Choice moniker, is adding 15,000 square feet to its facility. “They continue to grow and it’s been great to watch,” Reilly says.

For Brillion – the manufacturing heart of the county with four major industry employers – the past year has been “a bit of a roller coaster,” says Wayne Volkman, the city’s community development director.

Two of the city’s large manufacturers – the Ariens Co. and Professional Plating – continue to add jobs (Ariens is the county’s largest private employer) while employee numbers at Brillion Iron Works and the Endries Co. seesaw as the companies add and subtract employees depending on business demand.

Getting to Brillion was a bit difficult for about half of the year as the Wisconsin Department of Transportation made major upgrades to U.S. 10, which bisects the community. Now that work is done, “it will be easier to reach our community and businesses and easier for the commerce that passes through between Appleton and the Lakeshore,” Volkman says. “We are going to make a major push in 2013 to bring more businesses to Brillion.”

Agriculture remains a key part of the county’s economy as well with the industry providing 4,093 jobs – or 19 percent of the county’s jobs, according to a University of Wisconsin-Extension 2011 study. In 2011, agriculture pumped $1.17 billion into the economy or about 37 percent of the county’s total business sales.

High Cliff State Park is the county’s No. 1 tourism attraction, but visitors also come to the county for the ag-themed Mulberry Farm and the underground caves at Ledgeview Nature Center. Water sports, including ice fishing and snowmobiling on Lake Winnebago, also draw tourists.

County tourism spending was up slightly in 2011 to $23.8 million, up from $23.2 million in 2010. Tourism-related industries employ just more than 600 people throughout the county. “Tourism is strong here, especially ag-related tourism,” Schmelzer says. “We aren’t the Wisconsin Dells by any means, but we do offer a lot of things people can’t find elsewhere.”

That includes the caves at Ledgeview Nature Center and plenty of fall-themed activities like pumpkin patches and hay mazes. There’s also an initiative to better market historic churches and supper clubs in southern Calumet County and parts of neighboring Fond du Lac County.

The county is looking to soon launch a new tourism website to better market the many local offerings, Schmelzer says. “This is something we’re really excited about and a great way to get out the word about what’s here,” she says.

A CLOSER LOOK

Changing of the guard

After nearly seven years, the face of economic development in Brillion is changing.

Wayne Volkman retired as community development director at the end of November. He came to the city and thought he would stay only about five years. “It’s been almost seven years now,” he says. “I’ve spent 44 years in planning work and I’ve seen a lot of changes. It’s now time to take a break.”

Volkman worked for the East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, the Town of Menasha, the City of Menasha and Martenson & Eisele, Inc. before coming to Brillion.

Volkman, who is planning to head south for the winter months now that he’s retired, says he’ll miss working with the people and businesses in Brillion. “They’ll always have a place in my heart,” he says.

ON THE WEB

Calumet County Economic Development: www.calumetbusiness.com

City of Brillion: www.ci.brillion.wi.us/comdev_home.html

City of Chilton: www.chiltonchamber.com