Investing in the Future

Posted on Oct 1, 2010 :: Development
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

What a difference a year makes. A year ago, Fond du Lac County was facing the real possibility of losing its largest employer, Mercury Marine. Worker-approved concessions, plus financial incentives from the state and county kept the boat engine maker in Fond du Lac and gave the community a boost of confidence. Today, Mercury Marine is expanding in Fond du Lac and several other development projects are in the works, all designed with the intent to create jobs.

In August, Mercury Marine announced it was moving 200 factory jobs from its plant in Stillwater, Okla., to Fond du Lac by the end of 2011. In recent months, the maker of outboard motors also recalled about 500 laid-off workers and hired about 140 new employees, bringing the company’s total employment in the state to about 2,000.

“We’re very excited about the move since these are assembly jobs that weren’t part of the original discussion about jobs moving to Fond du Lac,” says Brenda Hicks-Sorensen, president of the Fond du Lac Economic Development Corp. (FCEDC).

Moving the jobs to Fond du Lac will better position the company moving forward, says Mercury Marine President Mark Schwabero.

“The unique combination available in Fond du Lac of a skilled and experienced workforce, world-class processes, a solid supply base and strong community support provides the best option for the remaining MerCruiser operations,” he says.

Mercury Marine isn’t the only company investing in Fond du Lac. Earlier this year, Green EnviroTech Corp. announced plans to build a $26 million plant in the city’s Southwest Industrial Park. If the project moves ahead (the company is still working on financing), an estimated 100 jobs could be created. The plant would convert shredder fluff – the refuse left over after processing a vehicle – into new vehicle parts and synthetic fuels.

An investment group broke ground in late August on a 60,000-square-foot spec building for office or manufacturing use in Fond du Lac’s Fox Ridge Industrial Park. Hicks-Sorensen says the building will be available for lease or sale and can also be subdivided, if necessary.
“It’s wonderful to have a group invest in Fond du Lac. This building will definitely generate a lot of interest,” she says.

Downtown revival

Fond du Lac’s city center will get a new look if plans put forward by the city and the Fond du Lac Downtown Partnership move ahead. Earlier this year, the city announced plans to create three revitalization downtown districts: the Gateway, River Walk and the Art, Education and Entertainment District.

An arts and entertainment district is the first one moving ahead and includes the creation of a festival plaza on Sheboygan Street and improved streetscape designs along Main Street. Additional parking, retail space and art gallery/studio space in the area will also be created. Hamilton Park is slated to receive an outdoor amphitheater, children’s garden and a spray-play fountain area. Some streets in the district will get banners, new lights, wider terraces and sculptures.

Representatives from the city, the Fond du Lac Downtown Partnership, Fond du Lac Arts Council, the FCEDC and others get together monthly to discuss the various projects and how to keep the momentum going, says Amy Hansen, Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership’s director. Project funding will come mainly from private funders and a task force has been put into place to oversee planning, marketing and fundraising.

“Collaboration is essential in moving the project forward,” says Hansen, adding some improvements are already in the works, such as a remodeling of the Ramada Plaza hotel and plans to turn a building vacated by The Reporter into the River Walk Business Center, a mixed-use warehouse, retail and office space. “It’s exciting to see some of the changes already going on.”

One big change is the newly opened YMCA, which is creating some activity in the surrounding area. “It’s redevelopment spurring redevelopment, which is just what we want,” says Hansen, adding construction is planned for next summer to begin updating the downtown’s streets and sidewalks.

The creation of the arts and entertainment district is just phase one of the city’s plan to re-ignite its downtown and use it to draw not only area residents, but tourists as well, Hansen says. “The downtown is the heart of the city and we want to make sure it really remains front and center in people’s minds.”

From the ground up

With study after study showing small businesses are the No. 1 job creator in the United States, the FCEDC has spent the past year rolling out its innovative Impact! Economic Gardening Program, which is designed to help local businesses grow.

In 2009, the FCEDC and Center for Enterprise Development received a $437,899 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration to expand and enhance existing business development services, says Hicks-Sorensen. The organization decided to go with the “Impact!” economic gardening program.

The term economic gardening means growing the economy from within. It is a model based on the idea that entrepreneurs at all levels of a business life-cycle drive economies. The program creates jobs by supporting existing companies in a community. Economic gardening works by providing access to technology for finding or expanding sales opportunities, creating supply chain efficiencies and understanding competition.

“The Impact program is really targeted at second-stage companies who have significant growth potential,” says Hicks-Sorensen. “Convincing businesses to relocate to Fond du Lac can be a challenge so we wanted to spend some time getting companies already here and invested locally to expand.”

The FCEDC team is working with the 23 companies enrolled in the Impact program on examining niche marketing opportunities or expanding into new markets. “We can work with businesses to help them get the answers they need to questions they may have about different opportunities,” Hicks-Sorensen says.

In the next three years, the FCEDC expects companies enrolled in the Impact program to create 500 local jobs and generate $16 million in private investment.

“We expect amazing results from this program,” Hicks-Sorensen says.
The FCEDC plans to use its new space at 116 N. Main St. to help it better meet the needs of Impact participants as well as provide space for the possible expansion or even creation of other programs. “We’re all about helping businesses grow. It’s an exciting process to watch,” Hicks-Sorensen says.