A diverse economic base and a high quality of life at affordable prices has become a winning combination for Oshkosh.
The Oshkosh/Neenah metropolitan statistical area recently ranked first in Wisconsin for job and economic growth by Area Development Magazine and third in the nation as a livable bargain market by MSN Real Estate and Bert Sperling of Sperling’s Top Places. Those honors, coupled with the most new commercial construction among New North municipalities in 2012 (more than $25 million), truly set the community apart, says Rob Kleman, senior vice president of economic development for the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce. He credits the city’s diverse economy, which includes Oshkosh Truck and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh as well as thriving technology companies and growing retail and tourism sectors.
“We are fortunate with the variety of industries we have here,” he says.
While Oshkosh Truck made the headlines last fall by announcing plans to lay off up to 450 workers because of declining defense spending, Kleman says the company remains on solid ground. “A few years ago, they only employed 2,000 and even after the layoffs, it will be somewhere about 3,500 – that’s still substantial,” he says. “We also have several other manufacturers who are hiring or have plans to hire, such as Muza Metals and EVCO Plastics, and all of that has given Oshkosh one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state at 6.5 percent.”
Both EVCO and Muza Metal Products completed expansion projects in the past year with EVCO adding 30,000 square feet to its south side plant and Muza Metal adding 47,000 square feet to its north side facility.
Manufacturers aren’t the only ones expanding. Tech companies such as ImproMed, which makes software for veterinary offices, and Dealer Fire, a maker of websites for the automobile sector, both call Oshkosh home and are growing. Last summer, ImproMed moved into a new 10,000-square-foot office while Dealer Fire has grown from two to 75 employees in just the past few years.
Heading downtown, nearly 2,000 employees work in City Center, including those from Miles Kimball, 4Imprint, U.S. Bank and more. “Those employees are a real boost to our downtown commercial industry,” Kleman says. “Our downtown is very strong.”
The area will get even stronger this spring when the hotel attached to the recently renovated Oshkosh Convention Center opens. In 2012, the UW-Oshkosh Foundation teamed up businessmen John Pfefferle and Rich Batley to purchase the out-of-date City Center Hotel and turn it into a state-of-the-art full-service hotel, now known as the Oshkosh Premier Waterfront Hotel & Convention Center.
Wendy Hielsberg, executive director of the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the new hotel is already attracting attention. “We have had a lot of interest in the convention center because of the hotel,” she says. “We really anticipate our convention traffic improving, which will help us during our off-season when we don’t have a lot of events that attract tourists.”
The Riverwalk, which has taken years to go from idea to finished product, connects Leach Park on Lake Winnebago all the way to the Wiouwash Trail. “The Riverwalk completion is huge for our community,” Kleman says. “Not only does it improve quality of life by providing more recreational offerings, it’s also great for tourism.”
The City of Oshkosh is now looking at plans to expand the Riverwalk on the south side of the Fox River.
The Riverwalk plays an integral role connecting the downtown with another key community component – the UW campus. “There’s no question that the UW is an economic powerhouse in Oshkosh,” Kleman says.
UW-Oshkosh is not only home to thousands of students, it also attracts visitors who come for sporting events or other on-campus activities. In the past couple of years, the university built a new academic building (Sage Hall, which houses the College of Business), a new dorm and a bio digester.
This past fall, the college broke ground on the UW-Oshkosh Alumni Welcome and Conference Center. The 22,000-square-foot facility will include a ballroom and breakout rooms all wired with the latest technology, making it an ideal spot for business meetings as well as serve as the campus’ “front door,” welcoming visitors, including alumni. There will also be offices for the UW-Oshkosh Alumni Relations, the UW-Oshkosh Foundation and the Business Success Center.
A CLOSER LOOK
Tourism packs an economic punch
Oshkosh rebranding itself as Wisconsin’s Event Center is paying dividends.
In 2011, visitors spent $201.7 million – an increase of 6.38 percent. Winnebago County boasts the 10th-highest tourism spending in the state.
While the final numbers for 2012 won’t be released until spring, Wendy Hielsberg, executive director of the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau, calls the summer months “amazing.”
“June and July were our busiest months ever when it comes to the number of tourists,” she says.
Oshkosh and its neighboring communities in Winnebago County are home to more than 1,000 events annually, including gallery walks and farmer’s markets as well as major festivals like Country USA and EAA Air Venture, the largest air show in the world.
“We also had the addition of some new events, such as Rock USA, that drew more people to the community,” Hielsberg says.
When the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau launched the Wisconsin’s Event City brand in 2010, some people were skeptical. Hielsberg says time has shown that it was the right move. “We have so many events and activities going on here, it was a perfect fit,” she says.
A CLOSER LOOK
Opportunity Oshkosh: a strategy
Like many cities, Oshkosh has multiple players involved in economic development, including the city, county, the chamber of commerce, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and two economic development groups. A new initiative called Opportunity Oshkosh brings them all together for a coordinated marketing campaign, which will tout everything the community has to offer. Once an industry cluster study is complete next spring, that campaign will then be rolled out to targeted markets as a way to bring more businesses to Oshkosh.
Russ Potratz of Strata Communications Inc. led the effort for a kick-off event in late November that shared the Opportunity Oshkosh brand, website and several videos featuring a variety of Oshkosh business and community leaders sharing what they think makes the region unique.
“Our goal is to get out the Opportunity Oshkosh message to businesses as well as community members,” he says. “We’re bringing everyone together with the common goal of promoting economic development in the area. Every organization does something a little bit different, but, in the end, it’s all about promoting Oshkosh as a great place to live and do business.”
ON THE WEB
Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce
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