As the home to major employers such as Acuity Insurance and Sargento Foods as well as tying for third place in the nation for concentration of manufacturing, Sheboygan County is on the cutting edge in many ways. Dane Checolinski, director of the Sheboygan County Economic Development Corp., says the county is on a mission to establish itself as a leader in another realm: innovation.
FreshTech is Wisconsin’s first innovation community. Plans for the half-mile area in the City of Sheboygan’s Indiana Avenue corridor include spaces designed for collaboration, co-working and hosting events, research labs, a makerspace and urban housing. The Wisconsin Internet of Things Council also established itself within FreshTech.
Stakeholders from across the county — including the SCEDC, City of Sheboygan, Sheboygan Area School District, Lakeland University and Lakeshore Technical College — are coming together to make the vision a reality. Two studies are underway — one looking at creating a makerspace, the other looking at developing an innovation hub.
Insight: Where did the idea for an innovation district in the county originate?
Dane Checolinski: The idea came from a former employee of the SCEDC, Jim Schuessler, who’s now running Door County. He went to an entrepreneurship training course in Atlanta, and he came back very excited for this concept of an innovation district. It seemed to fit a bunch of different challenges or opportunities we had in the Sheboygan area.
The first one is that the city wanted to start focusing on the Indiana Avenue corridor. It’s a main drag just south of the downtown right next to Blue Harbor. We wanted to try to breathe life back into that area. The second thing is that workforce continues to be a challenge across the state. (An innovation district) creates centers of life and problem-solving. It creates an environment where a lot of professionals want to be. If we could somehow re-create something like that in Sheboygan, we thought it’d be a better opportunity for us to be able to attract and keep … professionals.
It started in our organization. We shared it with the city. They seemed to really like the overall concept, and ultimately, three of us went on a road trip to go view a bunch of these different innovation districts: Chattanooga, Tenn., St. Louis and Indianapolis. Each one was in a different phase.
What makes Sheboygan County the right location for this?
The first thing is concentration of manufacturing. The second thing is, the community has had some really nice successes that I think bolster some confidence. In the 90s, it took an old coal pile and turned it into South Pier. Community leaders and city leaders had a vision for that peninsula, they went after it and they found Great Wolf to build Blue Harbor, and they transformed that area. We have some confidence that we can transform a landscape if we do it properly, think it through, get the right stakeholders. We can make it happen.
The next piece is that because workforce is such a key issue, we knew one of our bottlenecks was housing. We have done everything we can to encourage as much housing construction as we can. We’re not there yet on all fronts, but we saw a lot of units go into downtown and fill rather rapidly.
What steps have you taken in establishing this?
The City of Sheboygan has done an outstanding job getting ready on the physical front. They first created a concept master plan, which they are in the process of updating right now. They started purchasing real estate and making land available for development. We were lucky enough that the whole area was named an opportunity zone. The city has also created a TIF district on top of it, and now they’ve negotiated to purchase more rail line to extend multiuse trails through the area. The old tannery in that area is going to become 120 apartments, and so they’ve used some of those TIF funds to redo some of the streetscape and make it a lot nicer.
On the programming side, we first started off with our summit. We had 12 different things we wanted to know, and 150-plus people showed up. They started sharing all their ideas, and we recorded it. Based on that, a couple of different branches started to occur in programming. We have what we call our programming task force that is a group of about 30-plus individuals. Three subcommittees formed out of that, and they’re based around the strongest themes that came out of the summit: professional development, cross-company collaboration and entrepreneurship.
What are the next steps?
We do have a developer that now has the sole right to negotiate on part of the parcels the city has begun to accumulate. We’d like to look at doing the first office building down there in a long time. We need to see these two studies wrap up because even if one says, yes there’s something here and the other one says no, that means we’ve got at the very least a makerspace or an innovation hub. We want to see the IoT Council continue to grow and thrive.
There’s a lot of physical development that’s going to be shaping up in the next year or two, but ultimately on the programming side, we need to figure out what programming is going to be most effective at doing those three main things: changing the culture, helping to attract talent and then ultimately entrepreneurship as well. I think it’s going to be a joint physical and programmatic push.