Barb Fleisner served as vice president of economic development at the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce in the mid-2000s before moving three years ago to central Wisconsin to head up Centergy, a five-county economic development organization. Earlier this year, she returned to the New North as a regional account manager for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. She recently sat down with Insight Editor Margaret LeBrun to talk about the area’s economic challenges and successes.
I am passionate about a lot of things. I get up every day and work to live with four major principles: integrity, work hard, live hard and to give back. I try to do everything by those four principles. I also really care about helping businesses and industries. Whether it’s helping entrepreneurs and connecting them with local resources or helping existing businesses grow and work through their issues, such as workforce development, getting access to capital or dealing with government regulations, helping businesses is at the heart of what I do. In my current role, I am keenly focused on the recruitment of companies into the state of Wisconsin and particularly eight counties in Northeast Wisconsin. I’m out there meeting with companies interested in locating here or expanding into this part of the state.
I also work with companies who are already here and need access to state resources for a business development issue. When it comes to business development, I work with the local chambers of commerce, local governments and planning commissions. I am a firm believer that economic development happens locally and we need to tap into those resources. There are clearly some tools, such as tax credits or our low interest loan programs, that I am point guard on and help shepherd them through the state process to get that assistance.
Before coming to my current role, I was the executive director of Centergy in central Wisconsin. It’s a much smaller version of the New North – five counties compared to 18 – and I was the first paid employee.
Businesses today face many challenges. From what I’ve seen, helping our companies understand the importance of exporting is a challenge. That’s a huge opportunity. We have some companies who do it very well. We need to do a better job of partnering companies who want to get into the game with companies who have been doing it awhile and doing it well. People don’t know what they don’t know. There is a huge export market out there that we want our companies to be involved in and that will allow them to grow here in Northeast Wisconsin.
Workforce needs continue to be a challenge. Many businesses – particularly manufacturers – struggle with access to a skilled workforce. We need to do a better job to partner with technical colleges and customize training in areas of need. A related challenge is encouraging our young to continue their education and teaching them that learning is a life-long process. And as our young become educated, we need to do a better job of retaining our talent.
The road to economic growth is the continued support of our manufacturing sector. I would say that 98 percent of my caseload is working directly with manufacturers. Manufacturing is a key industry driver in the state and the New North. Our philosophy is that if we can support our manufacturers – who are usually at the top of the food chain – then the rest of the supply chain, whether it’s shipping or marketing, will grow, giving people higher disposable incomes so we can ultimately support a retail sector and quality of life initiatives in the region. In my opinion, it starts with our manufacturers and whatever we can do to support them in their efforts.
I am seeing a change for the better. I think we’ve seen our darkest days of the recession. Productivity is at an all-time high. Companies feel comfortable starting to put people back on the payroll. Job growth will be slow, but steady. I definitely see signs of optimism in the region.