What a difference a few years makes. As the Great Recession first tightened its grip on the regional economy in 2009, the greater Fond du Lac area found itself wrestling with some ugly economic realities. Mercury Marine, a key pillar of the regional economy, was seeking wage concessions and other economic assistance in an effort to remain viable as economic shocks pummeled its sales.
The company had a standing offer from Oklahoma to relocate its operations to that state, and the debate sharply divided the community. For a few dark hours, the company was set to move, taking thousands of jobs out of the regional economy — both directly and indirectly — as workers left and suppliers either followed on or closed up shop entirely.
Fast forward a few years and it all seems like a bad dream.
A last-minute counter-offer from the unions and the community provided the incentives Mercury Marine needed — including money from a half-cent sales tax for economic development – to adjust its business model and emerge from the economic turmoil stronger and more innovative. Both Mercury Marine and Fond du Lac have been running full speed ahead since.
“If they had gone away, it would have taken this region years to recover,” says Steve Jenkins, president of the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp. “But since then, they have invested more than half a billion dollars in improvements and we continue to see growth and ripple effect you get from that success.”
In late May, the marine propulsion manufacturer announced plans for a 45,000-square-foot expansion to its global headquarters in Fond du Lac. Construction is expected to be completed in January, with the facilities fully operational by the fourth quarter of 2016.
Growth adding to those numbers is a welcome sign.
“We remain committed to Fond du Lac and the state of Wisconsin and will continue to expand and create jobs not only in Wisconsin, but around the world,” says John Pfeifer, president of Mercury Marine. “This expansion will not only create jobs, but it will improve our flexibility and quality, and improve the environment.”
It’s the latest in a series of economic successes and milestones for the greater Fond du Lac region.
In late 2014, Grande Cheese Co., a producer of cheese and other ingredients for restaurants and food manufacturers, announced it was constructing a new headquarters and research facility on a 40-acre campus in Fond du Lac and moving the majority of its 175-member workforce there from its current location in Lomira.
Work is already underway on the first phase of the project, which is expected to be complete by early next year. Additional phases of the project include a research facility and orchards, vineyards, vegetable gardens and a greenhouse. The county has also seen its workforce grow steadily. Fond du Lac County has enjoyed some of the fastest job growth in the United States since 2013.
The latest rankings released by NewGeography show that among all 421 metropolitan areas in the U.S., Fond du Lac ranked 156th in job creation for 2015, up from 353rd in 2013. Among the nation’s 258 small metro areas, Fond du Lac ranked 91st, up from 202nd.
The county’s unemployment rate was reported at 3.8 percent, according to the latest figures released by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. The two fastest growing sectors of the economy in Fond du Lac are manufacturing and information technology.
“What you are seeing is the result of follow through on the promises that were made back in 2009,” says Joe Reitemeier, president and CEO of the Fond du Lac Association of Commerce. “It’s been pretty rewarding for all of us who were involved.”
In an effort to keep that forward momentum going, and create an agreed upon destination, Reitemeier, Jenkins and others are participating in Envision Fond du Lac, a community planning process designed to create a vision of what Fond du Lac should be like in 25 years.
“As individuals and individual institutions, we were all working toward making this a better community,” Reitemeier says. “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a unified vision of what that was?”
The project was championed by a recently graduating group from the Association of Commerce Leadership Fond du Lac program. The idea was to solicit input from all segments of the community and create a vision of the community in the future, determine steps to get there and then charge various groups with executing the plan, including regular milestones to measure progress toward the goal.
A Chicago-based consultant assisting the project spent much of the first half of the year meeting with various groups ranging from workers to retirees to students to small and large business owners. They have prepared a summary of findings, which the Envision Fond du Lac leadership is currently reviewing, says Holly Brenner, vice president of strategic development and marketing for Agnesian Healthcare and part of the Leadership Fond du Lac group that proposed the effort.
Another round of community outreach will be taking place soon to make sure the group has heard from all possible segments of the community, Brenner says.
“I want Fond du Lac to be something special for my children,” says Brenner of her inspiration for the project. “I want them to see the world, but I want this to be a place they will want to come back to where they can find good jobs and build a good life.”
While Envision Fond du Lac is the largest of the efforts aimed at keeping Fond du Lac moving forward, several specifically targeted measures have been launched as well.
The FCEDC brought together more than a dozen groups providing resources to entrepreneurs in the region and created a one-stop program called Ignite! Business Success. The idea was to create consistent service and support for startups and growing businesses.
Meanwhile, the Association of Commerce launched Fond du Lac Works, a web-based directory that lists every available job opening in the county in a single location. More than 600 jobs representing a range of employers can be viewed from the site.
Emergent Labs, an accelerator for technology startups, graduated its first four companies in late 2014. The program provides a 12-week mentoring process to give startups the business models and preparation necessary to pitch their products to angel investors.
The next big boost for Fond du Lac may come from a simple name change, Jenkins says. The change of name from U.S. Highway 41 to Interstate 41 opens up a host of possibilities for the entire region.
“It’s amazing what a name change does,” he says, reflecting on the fact that some site selectors won’t look at an area not connected to an interstate highway. “The whole region is an advanced manufacturing corridor and this helps raise the profile.”