Northern exposure

Marinette, Florence counties aim to draw residents, visitors

Posted on Sep 27, 2019 :: Economic Development
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Marinette County’s lead economic development organization has renamed and rebranded itself, and it has now turned its sights to achieving a set of audacious goals, including increasing the county’s population by 30 percent in the next 15 years.

The former Marinette County Association for Business & Industry Inc., or MCABI, has adopted the name inVenture North. The new moniker better reflects the regionalism the organization promotes and embraces. Business and economics know no borders, says inVenture North Executive Director Robert Pontius, noting the close ties between Marinette and Menominee, Mich.

“The political boundaries really don’t have anything to do with the prosperity of the region,” he says. “Because our funding was no longer exclusively Marinette County and because we saw a need to break across borders and break out of silos, we thought we definitely needed a name change — and something that was punchier and easier to remember.”

Since the relaunch, Pontius and Roberta Davis, marketing and community development director for inVenture North, have been visiting communities and re-establishing connections. The county covers a lot of space, Davis says, so it’s important to get out and communicate that the organization is there to help with economic development efforts.

Davis says these next steps are about inVenture North visiting communities and identifying their individual needs to help them build on their strengths and unique value propositions.

With the new name and brand also comes that bold goal of increasing the county’s population by 30 percent.

“The biggest holdbacks right now for economic development are talent and population,” Pontius says. “Attracting and retaining business isn’t about providing a piece of land or infrastructure or capital in the form of money; it’s really providing the talent and the workforce these companies need.”

Pontius says he’d like to see the county return to the boom times it enjoyed at the turn of the century. If it can achieve its goal, it will help draw all the other community features that will attract workforce to the area, from restaurants and entertainment to increased educational opportunities, he says.

Growing the population brings logistical challenges from offering ample housing to improving broadband. Pontius says the county faces huge shortages in housing at all levels, from low-income to luxury. It’s actively working with developers as well as looking at innovative solutions such as adaptively reusing underutilized buildings for housing and even tiny home villages.

As for broadband, it’s a hurdle for the county, Pontius says. Younger people expect higher bandwidth and won’t settle in a place that can’t offer it, he says.

When it comes to evaluating the need for broadband assistance on a federal level, Pontius says, the process relies on assessing census tracts. If one area in a tract has strong access, the whole tract is colored as having good broadband. Pontius says a more granular look is needed. The hope, he says, is to replace broad-brush census tract surveys with more accurate assessments to identify “internet deserts.”

The organization has set two other major goals: bringing the micropolitan region from the bottom 15 percent to the top 10 percent in the ranking of Micropolitan Statistical Areas and creating a distinctive asset for the community.

Given the large role manufacturing plays in the county’s economy, Pontius would like to see it pursue building an additive manufacturing innovation center. He says it could be a multidisciplinary facility with a focus on serving business and advancing technology around 3-D printing while also collaborating with K-12 schools and higher education.

First steps would include creating a pilot facility and demonstrating to people the power of 3-D printing, as “it’s a show, don’t tell” kind of innovation, Pontius says. The organization is seeking seed money from stakeholders, such as companies, higher education institutions and municipalities. Several entities would own the project, and inVenture North would lead the effort. Eventually, the goal would be to move to a larger standalone building.

One huge economic development win that could lie in store for Marinette County is the $1.2 billion U.S. Navy guided missile frigate contract. Fincantieri Marinette Marine is one of three companies vying to build the vessels. If it were to win the contract, it could lead to more than $19 billion for additional ships over the next 10 years.

Because Marinette Marine has already built a FREMM frigate that’s been a proven success with the Italian navy, Pontius says he believes the company holds a competitive advantage in landing the contract. “We’re very hopeful,” he says.

Attracting development

Florence County is making headway in opening an assisted living facility. Wendy Gehlhoff, economic development director for Florence County, says market studies have shown a need for the facility. The most recent study, completed in 2018, revealed a waiting list for this type of service within an hour radius.

“There’s a big need up here, and it’s only going to get bigger as the population ages,” she says.

The county would like to see a senior facility that includes independent living, assisted living and memory care. Gehlhoff says the county is working with a developer on a 35-unit concept that includes space for expansion. She’d like to see it break ground next spring.

In 2017, Florence County saw the highest tourism spending growth in the state, increasing 16.7 percent to $5.7 million. Gehlhoff says the spike was helped by an event that only happens every eight years — the Upper Peninsula Volunteer Firefighters Tournament brought 10,000 visitors. A renovation at Florence Middle and High School also brought contractor stays.

Overall, though, Gehlhoff says tourism is trending upward, increasing 12.5 percent over the last two years. The county offers abundant year-round outdoor recreation opportunities from its wild rivers and waterfalls to snowmobiling and all-terrain vehicle riding. Florence County’s Facebook page boasts more than 9,800 likes.

While the county is home to many campgrounds and cabin and cottage rentals as well as two bed and breakfast locations, it doesn’t have any hotels. Gehlhoff says the county has a parcel of land it’s willing to give away for free for development and has a TIF district available to provide financial assistance. It would like to see a 30- to 40-room hotel open.

“We just see there’s so much potential because of all the outdoor recreation,” she says. “There’s a pent-up demand.”