Laying the groundwork

Posted on Mar 30, 2021 :: Personalities
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Since joining the Greater Green Bay Chamber two years ago as vice president of economic development, Kelly Armstrong has been a whirlwind of activity as she leads the economic growth activities for the state’s second-largest chamber.

As part of her job, Armstrong is responsible for business retention and attraction as well as growing entrepreneurship. She talked with Insight about how the chamber pursues both avenues of growth and how sharing businesses’ stories makes doing both jobs easier.

Leading economic development initiatives sounds like an all-encompassing job.

Kelly Armstrong:  I get asked a lot, what is economic development? It’s so different for a lot of different people, but at the end of the day, it’s really about facilitating and helping to create the environment for community growth. And that community growth really comes from existing businesses. We focus a lot on existing businesses. We do over 200 business visits a year just to understand the challenges, growth opportunities. We work to connect them to resources and each other. 

What do you hear when you meet with local companies?

I would say the No. 1 thing we hear is really around talent. And one of the things on the positive side in 2020 is we had tremendous growth. Brown County saw over 24 existing business expansion projects in 2020. That’s phenomenal. 

We did see increased unemployment after the pandemic hit, but our unemployment rate went down faster than elsewhere. And that’s really attributed to the diversity of industries in manufacturing in the area. And with that comes its own challenges around talent, right? And we are launching several talent initiatives. We have a new director of talent that’s launching our community concierge program. We have a talent website that’s under development. And for the last two years, we’ve been working on getting all the data and information together for a branding campaign specifically around talent attraction and retention.

Entrepreneurship is another big component for the chamber.

Exactly. Entrepreneurship and current businesses are the two big places that you get your job growth and your economic growth in any community. And this is an exciting time for the greater Green Bay area.

TitletownTech was the absolute catalyst for being able to build out the entrepreneurial ecosystem. And you couldn’t ask for a better platform, right? They can take our story of the area on a national platform that we otherwise couldn’t. And it’s just such a unique component we have here. And then our job is to build out the rest of the ecosystem, so making sure our entrepreneurs have access to capital and that they have a place to convene and connect and grow the entrepreneurial network as well.

What work have you done around entrepreneurship and building out the ecosystem?

I came here two years ago and the first thing we did was rebrand and relaunch the Startup Hub, which is our business incubator. It’s been there for some time, but we really wanted to position that as the front door to the entrepreneurial ecosystem. We mean that both physically and virtually in that you may not need a space in the Startup Hub. If you need one, we’re there, we’ve got you. But if you’re not looking for that space, or that space isn’t the right space for you, we’ll help you in any way that you need, whether it’s connecting you to a mentor or helping with a business plan, getting connected to capital. And we do that by lining up all our partners and leveraging those relationships that we have across the community. And that’s been really exciting. And then the other piece is we launched the Urban Hub, and that is a coworking space in downtown Green Bay and really a central connecting point for entrepreneurs of any type. We’ve seen more of a propensity for more tech-based scalable companies utilizing that space. And then, of course, we have some corporate partners in there to help provide resources and answer questions as people are getting their businesses off the ground.

Funding is a top concern for many entrepreneurs.

Agreed. And what’s really exciting is that we were able to launch the Tundra Angels last year. They’re an angel investment network and just made their first investment. I’m super excited to be able to have that capital connection started in the ecosystem. I think what you would have found previously was there certainly was capital, but you had to have a network to get to it. And what we’re doing is lowering that barrier by formalizing it. And that way, we can connect startups to capital from ideation through different stages as well.

We have a lot of great stories to tell. Look at Paper Transport. It started in the Startup Hub before it was called that. It started out with just one or two trucks. Last year, they hired their 1,000th employee and they celebrated their 30-year anniversary. I mean, that’s the perfect story of why you invest in the entrepreneurial ecosystem — because you want more of those types of success stories.

We have such good stories to tell, and so part of my goal is getting other people to help us amplify that message as well — from a business attraction standpoint, but certainly even more so on talent attraction. This is a very interesting time in our country for talent. And you’ve got great transitions happening in heavily populated locations. And people are looking for new places to call home. I think we have a great play in that space from the (aspects of) quality of life, cost of living, career opportunities and global connectivity. And that’s the story we want to tell.

We have to include winter in that story. I know that’s what people think of — it’s cold and snowy — but we have to embrace it and talk about all the cool things you can do in winter. You can go skiing. You can go ice fishing. You can fat-tire bike. We have all of that and you’ve got access to the river and the bay and the lake. And that’s unique too in the Midwest.