INSIGHT ON ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT – Keeping pace – Led by UW, Oshkosh economy going strong

Posted on Jan 1, 2012 :: Economic Development
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

T here is no denying the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh is in a building boom. In the past year, construction crews finished a $2.3 million biodigester and the $48 million Sage Hall, which is the campus’ first new academic building since the 1970s. Next up is an alumni welcome and conference center that’s designed to be the college’s new “front door.”

And while Chancellor Richard Wells is proud of those achievements and the economic impact it has on the surrounding community – such as the creation of an estimated 2,000 construction jobs – he’s also quick to point out other ways the college spurs growth and development.

“At UW-Oshkosh, we are training the next generation of workers that the companies in this region and beyond will rely on as they continue to grow and expand,” Wells says. “We also provide assistance to hundreds of businesses through our counseling and consulting services. We’re helping businesses grow through that way, too.”

He also points out the college’s 13,500 students are an economic force of their own, supporting local stores and restaurants while also serving as workers themselves for many area businesses.

Wells says the college is also active in a number of regional initiatives, such as New North and the Northeast Wisconsin Educational Resource Alliance. “The college is a huge economic driver not only in Oshkosh, but I think in the region as well,” he says.

As for the building projects, the biodigester is the first commercial-scale dry anaerobic biodigester in the country. Owned by the UW-Oshkosh Foundation, the plant uses organic waste from dining halls, yards, supermarkets and farms to produce burnable gas that is then used to generate heat and electricity. The foundation is now looking to partner with Milk Source LLC to develop a wet biodigester at Rosendale Dairy, the state’s largest dairy farm, which is just southwest of Oshkosh. The project will provide a learning environment for students as well as produce energy.

“The biodigesters are part of the college’s overall commitment to sustainability,” Wells says.

The four-story Sage Hall opened last fall and has 27 classrooms, two lecture halls, 23 labs and dozens of breakout, study and project rooms as part of its 191,000-square-foot layout. Keeping with the college’s sustainability initiatives, Sage Hall was designed for a gold LEED rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Once Sage Hall was completed, work then began on a $27 million project to renovate education and nursing classrooms into state-of-the-art facilities.

The proposed 22,000-square-foot alumni and welcome center will be built along the Fox River on the campus’ south side. The facility will house not only a visitors’ center for the campus, but also feature plenty of room for conferences and meetings, creating a 30 percent increase in large group meeting space on campus.

One part of that project, which had the foundation pairing up with local investors to purchase and renovate the City Center Hotel downtown, is now off the table when remodeling costs went well above what was expected.

The new visitors’ center is expected to open in about three years.


Manufacturers expand

Manufacturing, led by Oshkosh Corp., remains a huge economic driver in Oshkosh. But while Oshkosh Corp. garners attention, other local manufacturers as well as IT businesses are doing well and are expanding, says Rob Kleman, executive director of the Oshkosh Area Economic Development Corp.

“We’re poised for continued growth in Oshkosh. We have a diverse economy. Our unemployment is the lowest in the region,” he says.

EVCO Plastics, a global, custom injection molder, broke ground last fall on a 30,000-square-foot expansion of its plant on the city’s south side. The addition creates more space for the company, which plans to add about 20 more workers in the next two years.

Muza Metal Products, which provides a variety of services, including full design and prototyping, laser cutting, tube bending, welding and machining, also recently broke ground on a 47,000-square-foot expansion of its north side facility. Muza plans on hiring 20 to 25 people within the next six months and up to 125 more people in the next five years as the company continues to grow.

Within the past 10 years, Muza saw its sales rise fourfold and its goal is to double business by 2017, says President Dan Hietpas. The company’s new owners – WING Capital Group of Milwaukee purchased the family-owned business in early 2011– are eager to invest in the company and expand its physical space while also upgrading equipment.

Muza Metals has three plants in Oshkosh and employs 246 workers.

Another Oshkosh business – ImproMed, which develops software for veterinary practices – is also growing. The company recently began building a 10,000-square-foot office and has plans to add 20 jobs within the next two years.

A subsidiary of Butler Schein Animal Health, the new two-story building on Ohio Street will allow ImproMed to consolidate all of its Oshkosh operations into one location while also creating room for additional growth.

DealerFire, a custom automotive web design and internet marketing firm that caters specifically to the automotive industry, received a $75,000 grant in 2011 from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation for an expansion that could add up to 30 IT jobs.

“Our proximity to the university as well as Fox Valley Technical College has provided us with a huge advantage in the IT sector and I see that continuing to grow,” Kleman says.

There’s also still discussion about creating an aviation-themed industrial park feeding off of Wittman Field

and EAA.

Kleman says EAA brings a lot of value to the Oshkosh area not only through its annual AirVenture but also its strong local employee base and the international attention it brings to Oshkosh.

“EAA is a wonderful community asset as well as an economic asset. I don’t think that always gets much attention,” he says.

Manufacturers and service providers aren’t the only ones expanding. Oshkosh’s retail market remains strong with the outlet mall nearing capacity and big box retailers joining the community along the 41 Corridor.

“Our retail growth in Oshkosh in the past six years outpaces that of anyone else in the Fox Valley,” Kleman says. “We have a lot to be proud of here in Oshkosh.”