INSIGHT ON: Economic Development – Something old, something new

Posted on Sep 1, 2015 :: Economic Development , Insight On , Uncategorized
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer
Northeast Wisconsin’s hardwood industry plans to embark on a new project to market its collective capacity and capabilities in order to capitalize on opportunities the mills can’t meet individually.

Northeast Wisconsin’s hardwood industry plans to embark on a new project to market its collective capacity and capabilities in order to capitalize on opportunities the mills can’t meet individually.

Don’t let the quiet of the Northwoods fool you.

Blessed with historic towns, tracts of dense forests and some of the state’s remaining wild rivers, it can be easy to forget there are thousands of businesses and people working in a variety of industries from shipbuilding to precision machining.

It’s not all about fishing, hunting and enjoying the great outdoors.

“I think people are always surprised at the variety of businesses we have in the area,” says Ann Hartnell, executive director of the Marinette County Association for Business & Industry. “We are seeing an upswing and we are seeing people who grew up here moving back because the companies and jobs are here for them.”

The economic indicators certainly paint a better picture in 2015 than just a few years ago. In Marinette County, for example, the unemployment rate for the county has been dropping steadily since a high of more than 13 percent in 2010 — the latest published unemployment rate was 5.9 percent.

Other counties in the region — Florence, Menominee and Oconto —have seen similar improvements.

Certainly, the success of Marinette Marine in securing construction contracts for the U.S. Navy’s littoral combat ships has created and retained hundreds of jobs for the region. The company recently launched its fifth ship in the class and has several others under construction at its shipyards.

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Employees at Sentinel Structures in Peshtigo created new masts for the historic ship C.A. Thayer using the wood lamination processes the company pioneered.

While shipbuilding is an industry with a long history in the region, one with ties dating even earlier into the state’s past may be poised to write a new and exciting chapter. The region’s timber industry has been missing out on opportunities because of capacity limitations of the individual mills that call the area home.

Now, with the assistance of the Grow North and New North economic development agencies, the region’s saw mills will work cooperatively as part of a hardwoods marketing group, collectively selling the capacity and capabilities of the group to capture opportunities such as overseas orders that often exceed what the mills can do individually.

With the completion of a recent opportunity study, the three-year project kicks off this month.

“I think what the opportunity analysis did was give us a much better understanding of how we could generate a higher return from the producer’s investment,” says Connie Loden, senior project manager with the New North. “They have a better understanding of the collaborative opportunities and it positions us well for the next phase.”

The recently published opportunity report addresses a range of issues for the mills, from different product demands to aggregating sawdust and scrap to pooling each mill’s collection of character woods or rare species to achieve the economies of scale necessary to tap into those markets.

Marketing and additional research to exploit new opportunities will be conducted by the new Wisconsin Wood Marketing Team.

Lumber isn’t the only industry eyeing new opportunities. The region’s manufacturing sector has also experienced several wins as it continues to grow.

Evergreen Tool Co., a maker of precision seals and hole-cutting tools used in fire suppression installations, as well as plumbers and electrical installers, recently acquired Hasselblad Machining in Green Bay and will consolidate the two companies in a new facility being built in Peshtigo’s industrial park.

“They were pretty aggressive about bringing us in,” says Joe Beranek, owner of Evergreen Tool, of the decision to locate the company’s new 16,000-square-foot facility in Peshtigo. “Marinette was also a possibility, but Peshtigo had the space we needed if we need to expand in the future.”

The city of Peshtigo will also provide nearly $500,000 in a loan for the new facility, which is expected to eventually employ nearly 40. Construction is expected to be complete by November.

Evergreen supplies parts to nearby Ansul, part of Tyco International, the world’s leading supplier of fire suppression products. The company is also an active exporter, with about 15 percent of its sales overseas.

“This is an area where manufacturers serve a lot of niche markets well beyond the region,” Beranek says. “We’ve got a pretty diverse group of manufactures, from ships to fire suppression to helicopters.”

Perhaps none of the markets are as niche as those developed by Peshtigo’s Sentinel Structures, which in late
July loaded two trucks with a unique cargo — the new, 107-foot masts for the C.A Thayer, one of the last surviving schooners from the West Coast lumber trade. The ship is part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

Sentinel Structures was an early pioneer in the process of creating wood laminates, and used more than 30,000 board feet of Douglas fir to create the new masts for the ship’s restoration. The company generally produces laminated wood arches, beams and trusses.

This is not its first go-round with a historic ship. Sentinel Structures is also a preferred supplier of materials used in the restoration of the U.S.S. Constitution.

“It’s been a very interesting experience,” Andreas Rhude, president of Sentinel Structures, says of the company’s involvement with historic ships. “We specialize in a lot of things our competitors won’t touch, and its lead to some unique opportunities for us.”