Finding footing

Communities, small businesses search for way forward

Posted on May 29, 2020 :: Economic Development
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

COVID-19 has sent countless small businesses into crisis, but for Stubborn Brothers Brewery in Shawano the timing could not have been worse.

Owners and brothers Aaron and Erik Gilling spent years painstakingly and lovingly transforming the historic Crescent Theater in downtown Shawano into a premier brewery and events venue. Days after their soft opening, the state’s Safer at Home order went into effect, severely limiting operations.

Despite the setback, business has carried on, if in a limited way. When the Safer at Home order was in place, the brewery offered beer sales every Thursday through Saturday, and people in cars and trucks lined up around the block to fill their growlers and howlers and support the new business. Stubborn Brothers plans to open fully June 3.

“We’re very lucky. Shawano is a wonderful community. We couldn’t imagine being anywhere else,” Aaron Gilling says.

In addition to serving beer — the Shawano Club Pilsner is the top seller — Stubborn Brothers recently began offering food delivery and carryout. The brewery’s chef studied under Gordon Ramsay and offers unique takes on American classics. Once open, the 20,000-square-foot building’s Crescent Ballroom will serve as an event space.

The kind of creativity the Gillings have employed to keep their business going is exactly what Nancy Smith, executive director of the Shawano Country Chamber of Commerce, is encouraging small businesses to embrace. Businesses need to maintain their cash flow, and the ones that are adding new ways to connect with customers are faring the best, she says.

To support small businesses, the chamber created a “Small Business Survival” video series, available on its website. It also coordinated a local gift card sell-a-thon and a downtown business virtual shop-hop. Smith is urging small business owners to add e-commerce options for selling their goods.

“Really, that’s what they need to do not only now, but probably moving forward too,” she says.

As for larger businesses in the county, Peter Thillman, newly named chief economic development officer for Shawano County Economic Progress Inc., says prior to COVID-19, the county was focusing on business recruitment. While the pandemic has slowed that a bit and forced SCEPI into “triage mode,” he says the county is still positioned well to attract businesses.

The county boasts one of the state’s highest percentages of populations that live in the county where they work, but 30 to 40 percent of people still leave for another county for work. Thillman sees
an opportunity in that.

“We’re in a pretty good position to recruit business in because we have an available labor force that right now is choosing to leave the county for somewhere else,” he says.

If companies can offer high-quality jobs with lucrative pay and benefits, Thillman says he believes many of the county’s skilled workers will stay in the county to work. In addition, Shawano is 30 to 45 minutes from Green Bay and the Fox Cities but is a little more remote than larger communities. That bit of isolation can prove beneficial in situations like COVID-19, he says.

Manufacturing provides stability

While Waupaca County’s tourism industry is feeling the strain of the pandemic, Dave Thiel, executive director of the Waupaca County Economic Development Corp., says the county’s top industries, manufacturing and agriculture, help provide a more stable base.

Thiel says most essential businesses in the county are finding ways to persevere, while nonessential ones are struggling. Questions remain about when the tourism industry will see a rebound. Polls show large majorities of people still feel unsafe, and regardless of when cities and towns open up, it could take time for people to feel comfortable and ready to spend time and money as they would have in the past, he says.

Tourism is the third-largest industry in Waupaca County, and the service and hospitality industry has been hit hard. Agriculture and manufacturing, however, dwarf tourism as economic drivers, with around 25 percent of the population working in manufacturing.

“I personally believe that manufacturing is going to come out of this and figure out how to make this work,” Thiel says.

Waupaca Foundry, the city’s largest employer, continues to lead in innovation. The Hitachi Metals Group company is in the middle of a four-phase, four-year expansion and technology upgrade plan. In March, the manufacturer finished expanding the space, the first phase of the $20 million project that’s taking place at Plant 2/3 at the company’s Waupaca facility.

Phase 2, which recently got underway, involves moving a packaging line into the new building and adding four automated CNC grinding machines. Phases 3 and 4 include adding a high-speed mesh belt with automated processing and packaging and adding two robotic grinding cells for complex geometry casting. The project is slated for completion in the spring of 2023.

Jared Petersen, director of digital technology for the company, says the upgrades mean workers increasingly will interact with CNCs, which will help eliminate safety and ergonomic concerns. Jobs will move away from the manual realm and will have a greater emphasis on technology, he says. The robotics also provide increased quality, consistency and efficiency.

Todd Pagel, plant manager for Plant 2/3, says the project will improve conditions for workers and make the foundry a more appealing workplace. “Really, the need for this expansion and the technology that will be applied was driven by the workforce,” he says.

The first phase included improvements that created more desirable working conditions, including LED lighting, the infusion of more natural light, increased dust mitigation and an automated louver system that provides better temperature management.

The project is part of the company’s larger objective of continuing to embrace internet of things and Industry 4.0 solutions, Petersen says.

“As things become more intelligent, decisions are made at the time of requirement more than a time of inspection or follow-up or review,” he says.