Let there be light

High-speed fiber project brings data, business opportunities to Door County

Posted on May 1, 2018 :: Economic Development
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Never underestimate the power of light.

Sure, it can pierce the darkness and turn night into day. But in the case of Door County, it also provides a means to capture more tourism dollars and gives businesses and manufacturers opportunities to better compete in the age of big data.

This past April, Nsight completed a fiber-optic trunk route stretching from Green Bay to Gills Rock, a project seven years in the making as the company battled with the county’s rocky terrain and took extra steps to protect environmentally sensitive areas.

The laser drivers were turned on in mid-April and the system is fully operational.

“Broadband data capacity is the new business infrastructure,” says Lee Thibaudeau, Nsight’s chief technology officer and vice president of engineering. “This is essentially unlimited capacity and provides high-speed data service for the business community, as well as increasing smartphone capacity.”

For the Door County business community, the fiber trunk means access to 100-gigabits-per-second data speeds. The increased broadband capacity also should help the area’s tourism industry, as well as efforts to recruit top talent to the region. A recent study found that part-time residents would extend their stay in the county by up to 12 days a year if they had access to broadband internet service.

Numbers crunched by the Door County Economic Development Corp. put the value on those extended days at more than $1.2 million in additional output, plus $400,000 in income.

“Visitors and industries increasingly rely on high-speed internet to conduct business,” says Paige Funkhouser, economic development manager for DCEDC. “In cooperation with the County of Door, Nsight has provided the infrastructure means to help Door County stay competitive in retaining and recruiting businesses and property owners.”

For Caleb Frostman, DCEDC’s former executive director, the fiber project is one of the latest successes in the organization’s strategy of upgrading and adding to the county’s infrastructure to support growth. (Frostman left his role at the DCEDC April 27 to pursue a seat in the Wisconsin Senate.) One area of particular interest in that strategy is adding to the county’s housing stock.

“It’s not necessarily a new focus, but its been a pretty strong one lately,” Frostman says.

Successful, too.

In May of 2017, the $7.7 million, 37-unit Bay Lofts project opened in the Western Waterfront District of Sturgeon Bay. In October, construction began on Sturgeon Bay Estates, a 56-unit complex located on the south side of Sturgeon Bay.

An estimated 120 units are in various stages of approval around the county, Frostman says. “We are really seeing things explode.”

Another key infrastructure asset in the county is the harbor at Sturgeon Bay, home to Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding, where many of the ships working the Great Lakes put in for repairs and overhaul during the winter season.

In 2017, the state provided a $3.6 million Harbor Assistance Program grant to help offset nearly $7 million in harbor improvements planned by Bay Shipbuilding. Bay Shipbuilding will use the money to finance dredging and harbor construction, allowing for deeper berths. The improvements will allow the company to accommodate heavier vessels and increase its overall winter capacity.

“They are a significant employer for us, and the winter fleet is quite the tourism draw,” Frostman says. “People will line up on the bridges to watch the fleet come in and depart.”

Tourism continues to be an important industry for Door County. The county ranks seventh of the state’s 72 counties when it comes to the economic impact of tourism, generating total tourism sales of $442 million in 2016, the latest year for which complete data is available. The industry employs nearly 3,200 people in the county and accounted for almost $38 million in local and state taxes.

Kewaunee County

The face of economic development in Kewaunee County will be changing.

Kewaunee County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Jennifer Brown has resigned, and the KCEDC has decided to complete a new strategic plan before filling the position. Brown was instrumental in securing a $4.2 million grant financing renovations and upgrades at Kewaunee Harbor and completed a new Kewaunee waterfront plan before departing for other opportunities.

Kewaunee County recently reduced its annual funding for KCEDC.

“I have had the great pleasure to work with Jennifer for the past four years as board chair, and KCEDC owes a debt of gratitude for Jennifer’s vision and leadership,” Lynie Vincent, KCEDC board chairman, said in a statement. “She will be greatly missed as she moves to her next challenge in her career.”