This time of year, the Northwoods of Wisconsin is its own best marketing tool.
Thousands flock north within a small window of weeks to witness Mother Nature’s spectacular display of fall colors. But the impact of this annual migration continues to peak long after the leaves have fallen.
As Elizabeth Becker recently wrote in her article “Overbooked” for Smithsonian magazine, “Tourism has become one of the most powerful, most influential and least-examined forces in the world. It produces $6.5 trillion of the global economy and employs one of every 12 people on earth. In gross economic power, it is in the same company as oil, energy, finance and agriculture.”
That economic power is certainly not lost on community leaders in northern counties, who see the influx of visitors to the area as a springboard toward economic development.
“There’s a direct translation between tourism and economic development,” says Becky DeWitt, interim Marinette County tourism director. “We have more than 1,600 jobs in tourism in Marinette County alone.”
Capitalizing on that unique asset, community leaders recently changed the way they promote Marinette County, targeting a nostalgic demographic to draw visitors to the area, then letting the region sell itself.
“We market in American Road magazine and always drive people to our website,” says DeWitt, who often hears the reaction, “Wow! You have this?”
Once those visitors are hooked on the Northwoods, economic development is often soon to follow.
“Over the years we’ve seen a lot of traffic from out of town and out of state come up to visit, then move up here permanently when they retire,” DeWitt explains. “Now we’re global. You can really start a business anywhere; do business via Skype etc… The increased ability to work from home generates more people relocating to the area to stay.”
In fact, Crivitz native DeWitt moved back to the area to stay herself and now runs a bed and breakfast in her hometown, refurbishing a house built near the turn of the century.
About Marinette Marine
In addition to its natural assets, Marinette County is also home to one of the region’s largest employers, Marinette Marine, with a workforce between 1,400 and 1,600 employees. The nationally recognized shipbuilder recently completed its fifth building project in the last three years and was just awarded contracts to build two more Littoral Combat Ships.
Ann Hartnell, executive director of the Marinette County Association for Business and Industry, says the role Marinette Marine plays in the area’s economic development is so significant it can be difficult to even measure.
“The impact is almost incalculable; it’s in the billions of dollars,” Hartnell says.
Yet, even with such a major player as Marinette Marine within their borders, county leaders recognize that seemingly simple efforts can also help foster economic development in the long run. With that in mind, they held a seminar last month, “Wisconsin Economic Development 101,” for local Wisconsin Economic Development Association (WEDA) members “to teach our local county board members and municipality officials what economic development is and what it can do for their communities,” Hartnell says.
The key to the message, she says, is the importance of first conceiving a plan for economic development and then slowly building on that plan.
“This is not a short-term thing. This is something that works over a period of probably 20 years for most communities,” she says. “Make small changes and invest in their communities in ways that slowly grow the community.”
That growth, she says, is crucial to the vitality of any region.
“If you don’t grow, you stagnate and die. It happens all the time in small towns. You need to do something for people to want to stay there,” she says. As an example, Hartnell points out active recreation areas for children, like a recent development in Wausaukee.
“We’ve noticed some young families who are staying in the area or have relocated from out of town.”
Florence and Oconto: It pays to play
Tapping into tourism traffic is a recurring theme among economic development leaders in the New North’s upper regions.
“Tourism is how we get people to like our area, and then they move here,” says Wendy Gehlhoff, economic development director for Florence County.
This spring, Florence County plans to target one of the things people like most about coming to northern Wisconsin: the expansive waterways.
“We’re unveiling a great new event called the Wisconsin Wild Rivers Tour,” Gehlhoff says. Signage and marketing materials are already in the works for the 100-mile tour with 15 different stops along the Pine and Popple rivers.
Florence County is also in the final stages of submitting the paperwork for the first TIF district at the county level, giving community leaders high hopes for the local economy, which has already seen a 7 percent increase in the county sales tax over the previous year.
A couple counties to the south, tourism and economic development are about a 50-50 split, according to the executive director of the Oconto County Economic Development Corporation, Paul Ehrfurth.
On the economic development side, Ehrfurth says Oconto County operates several revolving loan funds to assist in growing local companies or helping companies relocate in the area. One of those companies is North American Finishing in Suring, which manufactures high-end wood flooring.
“They’ll be ramping up in the next couple years and ultimately employ approximately 250 people,” says Ehrfurth, adding, “When you add 250 jobs to rural Oconto
County, that’s a big deal.”
Tourism is also a big part of the mix in Oconto County, Ehrfurth says. In fact the county recently passed a milestone in that area.
“We finally cracked the 100 million dollar club,” says Ehrfurth, citing the Department of Tourism statistics. “While it’s nice to pass that threshold, there’s still a bit of work to be done.”
Some of that work includes the launch of a brand new, comprehensive website (www.ocontocounty.org) along with new mobile apps to feed off the site.
In addition, Oconto County publishes a Discovery Guide with a distribution of 30,000 statewide and in northern Illinois, Ehrfurth says.
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