If all goes as planned, when September 2020 and the Ryder Cup roll into Sheboygan’s Whistling Straits, alongside a premier golf competition, the city will be ready to unveil its innovation district.
Named FreshTech, the 108-acre district is branded as the place “where water, ideas and talent converge.” It’s designed to foster collaboration among firms, higher education and entrepreneurs. It’s also about talent attraction.
Dane Checolinski, director of the Sheboygan County Economic Development Corp., says his organization has recognized that if the county wants to maintain employment at current levels, it must keep the talent it has while also proactively attracting more. Ideally, Sheboygan would provide people the best of both worlds.
“How do we offer them a similar vibe and feeling to a larger metro area but at the same time offer the quality of life that small-town Wisconsin is known for?” he says.
Checolinski and Joseph Sheehan, executive director of the SCEDC, believe the area offers that right combination, with outstanding schools and nonprofit organizations, natural beauty, recreation and a thriving arts and culture scene.
Chad Pelishek, director of planning and development for the City of Sheboygan, says the district’s location on the coast of Lake Michigan in the city’s downtown along Indiana Avenue offers many benefits, including waterfront and recreational access, proximity to Interstate 43 and a housing component.
The city’s place-making and quality of life efforts make Sheboygan an ideal place for this development, he says. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center is constructing a $40 million, 54,000-square-foot Art Preserve that’s slated to open in late summer of 2020. The facility will provide visitors an expanded opportunity to view the center’s collection of more than 20,000 works of art.
“We’ve, over the years, worked hard on keeping our waterfront and our riverfront accessible to the public,” Pelishek says. “We’ve worked hard on developing the arts and culture piece.”
The SCEDC plans to build LaunchPad, an innovation hub that will be constructed at the former J.J. Koepsell Co. site on South Ninth Street. It will serve as an event gathering space, administrative center and university satellite campus as well as offering Class A office and research and development space. It’s also expected to house a U.S. Small Business Administration Small Business Development Center.
The development, which the city is supporting with the creation of a $32 million TIF district, is modeled on other successful innovation districts throughout the country in cities such as Minneapolis, St. Louis and Chattanooga, Tenn.
An innovation district is about creating an inclusionary space that welcomes new ideas, invites people to think creatively and encourages startup creation, Checolinski says. He says he wants people to know they can come to Sheboygan County and be a part of creating the future of their industry.
“I think for too long the Midwest has said, ‘Oh, that’s not a good idea. Don’t do it.’ We’ve kind of shied away from that, and we want to give our community permission to create the future,” he says.
Sheboygan is home to a large concentration of family-owned, multigenerational companies with deep roots in the community — and they’re also on a global quest for talent, Pelishek says. Some of the county’s larger companies have begun expanding in larger metropolitan areas.
Kohler Co. opened a building in downtown Milwaukee and is looking at operations in downtown Chicago, and American Orthodontics operates an IT department in Minneapolis. He’s hoping the district will serve as a hub companies can use as a recruitment tool to give the workforce the amenities it’s seeking to keep talent and jobs in the area.
While the news coming out of Sheboygan County, from the planned innovation district to robust employment growth to the upcoming Ryder Cup, is resoundingly good, there’s one potential spoiler to its progress: housing.
“We keep talking to our employers,” SCEDC’s Sheehan says. “They’re saying, ‘Workforce. We need quality workforce.’ Part of that means, you need affordable housing also.”
The county has made some strides, especially in multifamily housing. Sheboygan completed 260 downtown apartment units and 700 in the entire city. It still could use another 700 to 800 units, Pelishek says.
Sheboygan recently received $1.5 million in state housing tax credits from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority — the only community to receive credits for two projects. Those will go to a historical rehabilitation project of an old tannery building and reconstruction of Wasserman Apartments, a public housing project.
The tannery project, which will be converted into Badger State Lofts, will provide 118 workforce units that will serve as a key housing piece for FreshTech. The Wasserman Apartments complex hasn’t been renovated since it was built in the late 1970s. The city is looking at ways to maximize the project and possibly incorporate some non-public housing units.
“It really comes down to the fact that this county is driving the market in job creation and open positions,” Pelishek says. “We’re creating more job openings than even Dane County.”
Despite the wins of receiving the tax credits and increasing the number of available apartments, the county still has work to do, Sheehan says. The demand for two-bedroom, two-bathroom, two-car condos remains high — the Water’s Edge development is slated to break ground this year and will offer 42 to 44 units.
A tight construction market and labor shortages mean affordable single-family housing is in short supply. For the past several years, the community hasn’t built more than 10 to 12 single-family houses a year, Pelishek says, and there’s little sign of improvement.
“Honestly, it’s been a struggle,” he says. “Everybody that we bring here, any kind of single-family housing developer, wherever they’re from, they’re going gangbusters in other areas. There’s just not an interest in doing it because the construction market is so tight.”
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