May 13 — the day the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the Safer at Home order — sent many communities throughout Wisconsin scrambling. Fond du Lac County wasn’t one of them.
On May 14, cities including Appleton and Green Bay, and counties including Brown, Outagamie, Winnebago and Manitowoc, put their own orders in place. By May 15, most had lifted them, saying the orders wouldn’t stand up to legal challenges.
While its neighbors worked through the uncertain time, Fond du Lac County skirted much of the confusion, thanks to careful planning, says Sadie Parafiniuk, president and CEO of Envision Greater Fond du Lac. The organization, along with public health and other county leaders, presented one unified message: You may reopen, but do so safely and responsibly, she says.
“This chaos just made it so much worse for businesses, for law enforcement and for people in general, and in our county, there was none of that,” Parafiniuk says. “We were calm here in Fond du Lac. It was a good day Wednesday night and Thursday.”
Parafiniuk, who began her role in April, may have walked into a less-than-ideal situation, but she and Envision staff members moved quickly to prepare for the likelihood the state Supreme Court would strike down the order.
Envision spearheaded the creation of and led a task force aimed at preparing for a safe reopening. The group included county-wide representation and public health officials, health care organizations, businesses, nonprofits and faith organizations.
Subcommittees addressed issues such as community health, child care and schools, personal protective equipment acquisition, business reopening guidelines and workforce re-entry. The task force created signage and posters, and Parafiniuk says the collaboration and co-branding between Envision and health care organizations and public health helped inspire confidence.
For now, the task force has disbanded, with the option of reconvening if the situation changes. Parafiniuk says Envision’s focus has shifted to economic development and supporting businesses now and in the future.
“Our economy is going to look a lot different, and unfortunately, some businesses are going to close and never reopen,” she says, pointing to Fond du Lac’s Schreiner’s Restaurant, which cited the pandemic in announcing its decision to close after 82 years.
Parafiniuk says Envision is updating its economic development and strategic plans, and the county has a robust revolving loan fund available to help businesses, a resource the organization will continue to promote.
While the pandemic has led to struggles for many businesses, Mercury Marine got a boost in late May when it entered an agreement with BRP to become the supplier of choice for BRP boat brands Alumacraft, Manitou, Quintrex and Stacer. BRP recently announced it would discontinue production of its Evinrude outboard engines, which were made in Sturtevant.
“This agreement brings us an incredible opportunity to further grow our brand in the marketplace and introduce our award-winning portfolio of outboard engines to new customers around the world,” Mercury Marine President Chris Drees said in a press release.
Green Lake regroups
When the Heidel House Resort & Spa in Green Lake closed in March 2019, it dealt a blow to the economy of the small community. Indeed, Green Lake County saw its tourism dollars decrease from $42.8 million in 2018 to $36.2 million in 2019, a 15.4 percent drop.
Lisa Beck, who was recently named executive director of the Green Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, said the loss also affected her organization, forcing it to cut 75 percent of its marketing budget.
While the closure of the iconic resort has taken a toll, Beck says the county still provides many appealing options for visitors, including golf, biking and, of course, lake life — all of which also allow for social distancing. Green Lake’s Fox Tale Brewing crafts ginger beer, which it also sells at Town Square Tap at Millpond Terrace. The community continues to offer abundant cabin rentals and bed and breakfast options, including Mill Street Haven, which also offers cooking classes.
Beck says finding a new owner for the Heidel House remains a priority, but she’s also looking at additional ways to draw more visitors. “The town square is a huge asset for us, and we need to keep the momentum going on that and keep it vibrant. Right now, it’s the anchor bringing people into the community,” she says.
In nearby Berlin, Community Development Director Lindsey Kemnitz says the city is working to meet the need for more housing. “We’ve definitely had a shortage of housing within our community,” she says. “We’re hearing it from the workforce side. Our employers have people who want to move here for a job, and they can’t even find a place to live,” she says.
A duplex project in the works will bring 16 units to Berlin’s north side. Kemnitz says the city hopes the duplexes will open more options for older residents, which will then open more existing housing options for younger families.