Making a comeback

After numerous setbacks, Manitowoc County rebounds

Posted on Mar 31, 2017 :: Economic Development
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

For many in Manitowoc, the Mirro building represented more than just a blighted property. It provided a visual reminder of a string of painful losses that seemed to keep rocking the community.

Of course, the Mirro Aluminum Co. ceased operations more than 13 years ago. Last June, however, Foster Needle ended production, putting 64 people out of work, and in August, Manitowoc Co. announced it would leave its namesake city, taking with it 528 jobs.

In March, demolition of the Mirro finally got underway, and it couldn’t be more welcome news for Manitowoc Mayor Justin Nickels.

“That one’s … an emotional issue the city needs to get over,” Nickels says. “It’s reminiscent of a town that’s dying,” and he says Manitowoc is anything but.

While Nickels acknowledges that the city has gone through difficult times, he sees it as an opportunity for Manitowoc to redefine itself. He says this begins with the downtown, and now is the time to invest in that.

“We’re really shifting into quality of life,” he says. “What we’re seeing nationwide is a huge shift in economic development. Chasing the smokestack is a thing of the past. Businesses are going where their employees want to live.”

Nickels takes a pragmatic view about the downtown development. Before the city can create “the dream,” he says it needs to tackle its biggest problems, including a lack of parking. The city also is taking steps to make itself more pedestrian- and bike-friendly, adding signage and sharrows, shared lanes for cars and bikes.

Peter Wills, executive director of Progress Lakeshore, says there’s no doubt that the Manitowoc Co. exit hurt. Manitowoc had branded itself as “the city that makes big things,” he says. “As that’s changed there’s been a little bit of a gap there about that identifying vision.”

The region has, however, enjoyed good news on the jobs front of late. Food company Kerry, owner of Manitowoc food flavoring company Red Arrow, recently announced plans to purchase and renovate the vacated Foster Needle plant.

There’s no word yet on how many jobs the Kerry operations will add, but there’s also another player in the food flavorings scene. R2H Flavor Tech is a 10-employee startup company that creates liquid smoke and other flavorings. It represents a $6.5 million investment, and most of its products will be exported, Wills says.

Orion Energy Systems also announced the addition of 30 jobs. Kiel’s Amerequip is undergoing another expansion, and Sargento and Land O’ Lakes continue to grow.

One of the biggest players in Manitowoc County, though is Forefront Dermatology. The company that now has practices in 11 states chose to invest in downtown Manitowoc, building its high-rise headquarters there and adding 200 jobs.

Dr. Betsy Wernli, deputy president of Forefront, praises the region’s workforce. “Our employees have chosen to partner with us,” she says. “They’re hard-working; they’re loyal; they believe in the same goal that our company believes in.”

Nickels says this kind of diversification of jobs in the region is a positive sign. While manufacturing still plays a vital role, he says, growth in the banking and health care sectors makes the economy more stable.

With the jobs outlook brightening, Progress Lakeshore is turning its attention toward the water and tourism, including efforts like improving aesthetics at Red Arrow and Neshotah parks.

Manitowoc County saw more than $110 million in direct visitor spending in 2015, an increase of nearly 4 percent from 2014, according to the latest complete data from the state Department of Tourism. The industry supports nearly 3,100 jobs paying more than $45 million in wages and generating more than $15 million in state and local taxes.

Wills says he expects those numbers to climb. The county is drawing closer to some new major tourist destinations with the Wisconsin Agricultural Education Center and a possible National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association designation of a Wisconsin-Lake Michigan marine sanctuary that would protect 37 shipwrecks.

The $13 million agriculture center has reached 86 percent of its fundraising goal, and the expansive, 29,000-square-foot facility would include interactive exhibits and a birthing barn.

“We’re very excited about the marine sanctuary,” says Greg Buckley, city manager of Two Rivers. “We think that’s got a lot of potential to bring a lot more visitors to the Two Rivers area.”

Buckley is looking forward to what he hopes will be an active summer for the city with activities like Kites Over Lake Michigan, which draws crowds of 40,000, S.S. Badger Shoreline Cruises and the Pro Am beach volleyball tournament.

Two Rivers also is looking to redevelop the former Hamilton Manufacturing Co. site into a riverside park. It received a $74,500 grant from the Fund for Lake Michigan to address water quality and green stormwater infrastructure.

“Two Rivers is best at being a quality, traditional community,” Buckley says, noting at the same time that the city’s population is aging and needs to maintain its density.

Ashley Armstrong of Young Professionals of Manitowoc County thinks the region holds much for the younger set. The school-to-work coordinator at Lincoln High School has lived in Manitowoc her entire life.

In high school, she planned to leave, but she says she just kept finding reasons to stay. She praises the area’s great schools, from K-12 to higher learning institutions, as well as its natural beauty.

To attract new young professionals, Armstrong says employers need to focus on paying competitive wages, and the communities need to highlight and showcase their assets. “I really think our future is bright.”