Face Time – Wendy Gehlhoff on the economy 'Up North'

Posted on Apr 1, 2014 :: Face Time
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer
Photo by Bob Cashman/Image Studios, for Insight

Photo by Bob Cashman/Image Studios, for Insight

Wendy Gehlhoff, director of the Florence County Economic Development Commission, moved to the New North’s northernmost county in 2002 after working for Illinois-based Buckman Laboratories. Gehlhoff spoke with Insight associate editor Nikki Kallio about the draw of Florence’s slower pace, its vast outdoor recreation possibilities, and the county’s potential for growth in the forest products industry.

Florence County is the northernmost county in the New North. We border the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It’s our trade region, I guess you would say. A lot of folks commute across the river to work at some of the bigger businesses that are located 15 miles away in Iron Mountain.

We have a growing forest products industry. Florence County has five sawmills now. We’ve added a couple over the last few years and most have been in a growth phase. The wood products markets are great right now, so our sawmills are producing lumber out of every log they can get their hands on. Sometimes we struggle with log supply, but we have a number of projects that we’re working on in our region to improve the amount of wood they’re harvesting from the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

We received a WEDC grant for a stewardship contracting initiative, and that’s in about eight counties that are spread through two regional economic groups. By doing a stewardship agreement and then following that up with specific stewardship projects, you’re able to harvest the timber, and then the money that you produce from that timber sale gets spent on local projects with local contractors. So rather than having the timber sale revenues go back to the federal treasury, we can have that money to spend here locally to help sustain and grow jobs related to our forest products industry.

We’ve created our first tax incremental finance district, and because Florence doesn’t have an appropriate city or village, we were allowed to do it on a county level. Our TIF district is 652 acres centered around downtown Florence, and it includes our industrial park and some land to the west and to the north. We have some tax incentives we can use to help grow new jobs and new products and services for our residents and our visitors.

Our TIF plan includes a senior housing and/or assisted living-type project. Florence County’s median age is 49.7, much higher than the state average, so we have a need.

At the industrial park, we are open to any type of projects related to grow our forest products industry cluster. We’d like to attract additional finished product producers. Four of our sawmills produce green lumber, and only one has dry kilns that makes a finished product.

Another project would be a motel or hotel development. We’ve had an independent third-party study done, and we could support a 30-room hotel in the mid-price range. We have one motel in the economy range that has 11 rooms, and they have minimal service. We are looking for something for families and folks who are traveling, with a little more service provided.

The great thing about Florence County is over two-thirds of our county land is publicly owned, and additional acreage is under open recreation, so we’ve got every type of trail you can imagine. We have two of the state’s five wild rivers. We’re rolling out this spring a new Wisconsin Wild Rivers Tour, a 100-mile loop that has 15 different access points to our Pine and Popple rivers. We have seven beautiful waterfalls. We obtained a Department of Tourism grant to help us with promotion. We’ve got a new mobile app connected with our website (exploreflorencecounty.com). It has directories related to lodging, dining, outdoor recreation, our business directory and it will have our wild rivers directory.

We are the smallest county in the New North in size and population – we only have 4,500 people in our entire county, no traffic and no stoplights. So if you’re looking to get away from the traffic, come north. Those of us that live up here, we choose that.