Sam Perlman came to Door County by way of New York City and his native Chicago, where he worked in the music industry and the arts. He says his role as economic development manager for the Door County Economic Development Corporation during the past 10 years calls for many of the same skills. He sat down with Insight Editor Margaret LeBrun to talk about the current status of the peninsula’s economy.
We are, in many ways, a weather-dependent economy in Door County for agriculture and tourism. With the cold spring we’ve been a little nervous, but we always go into the season very cautiously optimistic. We estimate the population here grows from about 30,000 to a seasonal population of about 150,000 – and then we get about 2.2 million visitors on an annual basis.
We are marketing and pitching Door County as a great place to live, work, start a business, relocate a business, expand an existing business. In Sturgeon Bay, they’re looking at the west side waterfront between the old and new bridge. In Sister Bay, they’re looking at creating a really beautiful waterfront park, with a 1,000-foot beach downtown. Washington Island is working on redevelopment around Detroit Harbor and focusing on improved waterfront access, improved beaches. All three of these plans are looking at new business opportunities, possibly restaurants, retail, and in Sturgeon Bay, a new hotel.
Sturgeon Bay is doing pretty well, though there have been rough patches over the last handful of years. You know you’ve had a bad recession when even rich people weren’t buying yachts. Palmer Johnson struggled but they’re back now; they just launched that magnificent, huge yacht, Lady M., at the end of May. It left Door County June 4, heading to Europe. Bay Shipbuilding has come back very strong, building its new platform service vessels to service the oil industry, the platform oil rigs. They are doing construction, finishing the second section of their floating dry dock. Marine Travelift has been making an impact on jobs with its foreign business. We’ve also seen expansion and growth within the industrial park. Therma-Tron-X and Hatco Corp. relatively recently completed expansions and WireTech Fabricators relocated in the last three or four years.
When we released our economic development adjustment plan in April 2008 with David Ward (of NorthStar Economics), he pointed out the Door County economy is a very balanced economy, with agriculture, tourism and manufacturing. Tourism is strong and employs a lot of people but many are seasonal or part-time, and those jobs may not have benefits, whereas manufacturing jobs are year-round, with benefits.
Over the last few years, five of the six of our industry and entrepreneur awards have gone to food-related businesses. We are becoming very well known as a food destination; the Door County Visitor Bureau’s marketing campaign is “So Delicious, So Door County.” When the early French explorers came to the peninsula there was such an abundance of foodstuffs and fauna they called it “A Kingdom so Delicious” and that was quoted in the 1960s in a National Geographic article that really kick-started the modern era of Door County tourism.
We also have eight wineries now. All are working collectively through the Door County Wine Trail program, and the new Door 44 Winery just opened in Sevastopol. We’ve got two distilleries, a cider house in Ellison Bay that is processing fruit they grow up on Washington Island. We’ve got a new brewery in Baileys Harbor, Door County Brewing Company.
We have made significant strides in the last dozen years in terms of broadband access throughout the county. It’s not perfect; we are both blessed and cursed by our topography and geology. But for most people there is some way to reach and get access to high-speed Internet services. We want to continue to encourage and inspire our seasonal residents and vacation home owners to make Door County their permanent residence, to bring the resources that they have at their disposal from their lives and experiences and leverage those in Door County, and one of the ways they can do that is through connectivity.