Powering the economy

Manufacturing remains heart of Fond du Lac’s growth

Posted on Jun 25, 2019 :: Economic Development
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

With one in three Fond du Lac County jobs tied to manufacturing, the industry remains the engine driving Fond du Lac’s economy.

Mercury Marine, which has invested more than $1.14 billion in expansion and R&D work in the city since 2008, recently completed two projects: a new $10 million noise, vibration and harshness testing facility and a 23,500-square-foot, $9 million addition to its diecasting facility. In addition, in May it broke ground on a $17 million, 30,000-square-foot expansion of its propeller-casting facility.

“Mercury Marine keeps growing and their investment in our community is always a good sign,” says M. Scott Powell, vice president of economic development for Envision Greater Fond du Lac. “They are our largest manufacturing employer and so important to the local economy.”

Mercury Marine is not alone in its growth. Mid-States Aluminum, a supplier of aluminum extrusions, is finishing a $23 million, 36,000-square-foot expansion project. “They have a new extrusion press line that’s more than two football fields long,” Powell says.

C.D. Smith Construction recently completed a major economic development project in the city: a new $11 million, 50,000-square-foot corporate headquarters in the Ledgeview Business Park, near the intersection of U.S. 151 and Interstate 41.

The family-owned company used sustainable materials, including exposed concrete, wood decking and reclaimed materials. The new building also includes a curtain wall and glass that will allow for daylight harvesting and natural lighting. Motorized roller shades and automatic lighting controls will maintain high energy efficiency. There’s also access to a nearby solar structure from which to draw power.

Another big success for the area was attracting Johnstone Supply, which is building a new 25,000-square-foot facility in the Northgate Business Park in North Fond du Lac, Powell says. Johnstone Supply, a heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration supply company, hopes to move into the facility next summer. The location will be a division of its Milwaukee office.

Johnstone did not wait to get into the market and is leasing space until its facility is built. While the company was lucky to find the space it needed, that’s not always the case, Powell says.

“One challenge we have is that companies come in and they want to get into space right away,” he says. “They don’t have time to waste.”

That was one reason Envision took the unusual step of working with Keller Inc. of Kaukauna to virtually design two buildings, one 50,000 square feet and one 100,000 square feet, that have everything titled and approved.

“Those buildings could be built in just a few months. Of course, the buyers can make them a little different, but they’re basically done, and the business just has to give the go-ahead and construction can get going,” he says.

Powell says developing virtual buildings isn’t common, but it provides less risk than building a facility on spec and hoping a business buys or leases it. “Doing this just provides us with another way to market ourselves,” he says.

West of Fond du Lac on U.S. 151, the trade war with China has put a $150 million project on hold in Waupun. Last year, the city and a developer reached an agreement to build a soybean crushing facility, which would have been the first in Wisconsin.

Questions over the profitability of the soybean market — China is the No. 1 buyer of U.S. soybeans, but has scaled back its purchases immensely due to President Trump’s tariffs — made it challenging for the project to secure funding, says Kathy Schlieve, director of Waupun’s Economic Development Department. With the uncertainty, Schlieve says the city decided to end its development agreement.

“They understand we can’t hold the space open for them and pass up on other potential projects for that site,” she says. “We hope to see that project come to fruition, but right now they can’t get funding because the market is so unsettled. It’s a good site with a rail line and we don’t want to lose out on any opportunities while waiting to see what happens with the soybean market.”

While the soybean crushing facility is on hold, Schlieve says there’s plenty going on downtown.

“We’re definitely seeing quite a bit of regeneration in the downtown with younger people buying places and opening their own retail businesses,” she says. “On our east side, we’ve also seen commercial development too as we want to continue to grow along the U.S. 151 corridor. We had our first development — a truck plaza that is owned by the people who own Eden Meat Market.”

Time of change

The rural region of Green Lake, Marquette and Waushara counties is seeing quite a bit of change, including the dissolution of a joint economic development organization. The counties pulled funding from the Tri-County Economic Development Corp. over management concerns. The state notified the three counties in 2018 that the necessary paperwork and reports concerning their Community Development Block Grant program, which was administered by TREDC, were not being filed.

Right now, the three counties are working separately on their development plans.

Area residents also were surprised when Green Lake’s Heidel House Resort and Spa closed. Madison-based Fiore Companies announced in March that it planned to close the 165-room resort in May due to a lack of business and competition from waterparks in Wisconsin Dells, which is located about 50 miles away from Green Lake.

In 2018, $247,000 in room tax revenue from the resort was collected, with much of it going to the Green Lake Chamber of Commerce. While there are no formal plans for the future of the site, Fiore Companies hinted it may reopen the property, but with a much smaller footprint.

Montello in Marquette County also is seeing change this summer, as a five-phase construction project closes parts of Highway 23 and adjacent streets. Since it’s a work in progress and closures change week to week, the city set up a Facebook page to keep residents informed in addition to posting information on its website.

A part of the project was supposed to be finished last year but didn’t get done due to flooding, says Mike Kohnke, director of public works for Montello. While the project makes it a struggle to get around the downtown, once finished traffic flow will be much better, he adds.