New North guides region as pandemic continues

Posted on Feb 26, 2021 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

A year in, what at first seemed strange — taking Zoom calls with a cat on your lap or wearing face coverings out in public — has become somewhat normalized.

“We created a video last April about resiliency featuring people wearing masks, empty playgrounds … we wanted to get it done so it would still be relevant once it was released,” New North, Inc. President and CEO Barb LaMue says. “Who knew that nearly a year later it would still be relevant?”

The length and depth of the pandemic has surprised many, but throughout the past 12 months, New North, Inc., a regional economic development corporation, has worked closely with its partners on multiple initiatives to help businesses and communities. Whether it was sharing information about financial assistance programs, developing a CEO leadership series where executives spoke about their own pandemic challenges, or working with partners to develop a program to reskill unemployed workers, New North played a defining role.

“When the pandemic first started, we thought it wouldn’t last that long, but we got down to work right away since we knew there would be a lot for us to do,” LaMue says. “We huddled with our partners and took the leadership role.”

Among those partners were the economic development corporations for the region’s 18 counties, chambers of commerce and business organizations — just to name a few. New North’s leadership worked with those entities to get vital information to its many partners.

Keeping owners updated was an essential part of Door County’s plan to aid businesses, says Steve Jenkins, executive director of the Door County Economic Development Corp. 

“Our communications had information for the short term as well as long term, and businesses told us it was a great help to them,” he says. “The hospitality businesses were on the same page and had a lot of the same rules in place, which made visitors feel safe. Some businesses told me they had the best year ever in 2020.”

 Feeling the pain

 The state has a long road ahead before the economy returns to pre-pandemic levels, according to Forward Analytics, the research arm of the Wisconsin Counties Association.  

“Wisconsin, like the rest of our nation, has been battered from all directions by COVID-19,” says Forward Analytics Director Dale Knapp, who authored “The COVID Economy: The Economic Impacts of COVID-19 in Wisconsin,” which examines the economic damage the pandemic caused from March through November 2020. The report came out at the end of January.

The hit to Wisconsin’s economy in the first half of 2020, particularly from March through May, was enormous, Knapp says. Wisconsin’s GDP fell 11.4 percent, and the unemployment rate soared from 3.5 percent in February to 13.6 percent in April, the highest it has been since the Great Depression. 

The sharp economic decline was short-lived as employers began rehiring significant numbers of workers in May and June, but the pace of job gains began to slow in July. During October and November, employment declined, which confirms the slowing recovery, he says.

Marc Schaffer, an economics professor at St. Norbert College, says the pandemic and resulting economic slowdown affected industries differently, with signs of recovery remaining uneven. For example, some sectors, such as manufacturing, are doing well, while others, including hospitality, arts venues and restaurants, are suffering.

During a presentation in late 2020, he pointed out that some industries, such as construction, noticed differences within their own sector. 

“New homes and remodeling construction is very busy right now, while commercial has slowed a bit,” Schaffer says. “We’ve also noticed (in our research) higher-wage earners are more likely to be able to work from home, while those at the lower end are less likely to have that option. There definitely remains a divide in the recovery.”

Schaffer doesn’t predict consumer behavior will rebound until people feel they can be safe in public — something that won’t come until at least 60 to 70 percent of the population has been vaccinated against the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccination level may not hit that mark until this summer, meaning mask wearing and social distancing will still be with us for at least the next several months.

Businesses, especially those in the hospitality, entertainment and tourism sectors, are waiting for customers “to come out of hibernation,” says Jeffrey Sachse, interim director for the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s Center for Customized Research and Services. The center has surveyed state businesses monthly since last April to gauge how the economy is doing.

“Putting those numbers together, business leaders, educators and economic development leaders can have a better understanding of how businesses are doing and their largest concerns,” he says.

New North was an early partner with UW-Oshkosh on the survey, eventually bringing in the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., which took the survey statewide. “We work with a lot of partners, and bringing in the WEDC to the survey took it to the next level and provided statewide information on how businesses were managing,” LaMue says.

Strong partners

 In those first days when life was changing so rapidly, LaMue realized New North needed to involve itself in multiple initiatives and programs to help businesses throughout the region. She began by forming a close relationship with the WEDC, realizing it would benefit area businesses and communities.

By sharing information about WEDC grants and other state and federal programs with New North’s local partners, she says businesses were able to receive information quickly and tap into a variety of grants. Through the We’re All In grant program, the WEDC provided 55,000 small businesses statewide with $240 million in 2020.

In addition to making sure its economic and community partners knew about available grant programs — which they then shared with businesses in their communities — New North worked with those same partners to make sure they provided businesses with the information and paperwork they needed for their Paycheck Protection Program loans.

“In the first round of PPP loans, businesses needed a letter of support and we worked with chambers and the EDCs on those as well as did some ourselves,” LaMue says. “It was truly a team effort.”

Hearing about the need for personal protective equipment through the WEDC, New North reached out to manufacturers in the region to see if any could switch up their operations to produce masks, gowns, shields and anything else front-line workers needed. That initiative proved to be a success as it provided additional income for businesses while producing much-needed equipment for those who needed it.

Beyond assisting companies, New North also found ways to help individuals find work, especially those in hard-hit industries, such as retail or hospitality, where the jobs may never come back. The organization brought multiple parties together to create the gener8tor Upskilling program.

A key part of the program, which provides free training for in-demand jobs, was Microsoft offering its LinkedIn Learning modules for free. The tech company partnered with gener8tor and adopted its organizational model to help people learn a lot in a short span of time. Together, they created the gener8tor Upskilling program, which is now being used in other parts of the Microsoft organization. New North received additional funding for the program from American Family Insurance and the Thrivent Foundation.

“We saw finding new careers in in-demand fields as a way to help” those unemployed and underemployed, says LaMue, adding the program targeted people of color and women since they were affected disproportionately by the loss of those permanent jobs. “It’s been a success as we saw people finding jobs, while others wanted to go on and learn even more.”

Joe Kirgues, co-founder of gener8tor, credits New North for the program’s success. “To move along the program as quickly as it did, you needed someone like the New North to get everyone together and moving in the same direction.”

Conquering challenges

 As the economy continues to rev up, broadband accessibility and affordability across the region is a must, LaMue says. While New North knew it was a concern pre-pandemic, the shifting of people to working or attending school from home put the issue directly in the spotlight. “The lack of broadband is crucial,” she says.

Individuals and families with lower incomes have been hit harder by the economic slowdown, and a lack of reliable internet service is part of that equation, says SNC’s Schaffer. “They don’t have enough food or quality internet, which makes it harder for kids to do any schoolwork from home, which can put them further behind.”

New North applied for a U.S. Economic Development Administration grant to help improve broadband coverage in the region. LaMue says counties are preparing their plans to boost coverage, which is crucial since that shows the EDA that “we’re ready to go.”

Jenkins agrees broadband is a big issue in Door County and says DCEDC is working on a plan to deliver it to everyone. 

“This year, we had some summer residents stay right through the fall and are deciding to live here year-round instead of going back to a larger city. One key to keeping them is broadband access,” he says.

It’s an issue LaMue believes the entire region can conquer. “We’re all working in the same direction on this.” 

Weathering the storm

Good or bad — businesses of all sizes from all sectors have felt the impact of the pandemic. Some had to close initially last March as part of the state’s Safer at Home order or lost product orders as demand and supplies dried up, while others saw revenue increases since they made in-demand products, such as personal protective equipment, wipes or toilet paper.

Just as every business is unique, each one faced its own set of circumstances as it sought to stay open. Whether businesses received grant assistance or used new marketing techniques, including social media, the going was still tough.

Voyageurs Sourdough and Bakehouse opened its storefront in Green Bay’s Rail Yard District just days before the stay-at-home order went into effect last March. While the business relied on its past customers and wholesale business, it still needed help once its store was allowed to open, says Ben Cadman, who owns the business with his wife, Celeste Parins.

Voyageurs was one of several businesses to tap into the $276,500 given to businesses as part of the Greater Green Bay Chamber’s Back to Business Grants. Led by a $200,000 gift from American Foods Group, the grant program helped 39 businesses through pandemic hardships.

Cadman says the business received a $6,800 grant and used another $6,000 of its own money to purchase a $13,000 grab-and-go cooler and shelving/merchandising space where Voyageurs can display and sell its products.

“We’ve definitely been one of the fortunate businesses in our industry,” he says, adding the grab-and-go cooler allowed customers to access products easily when indoor dining wasn’t allowed. 

Restaurants and bars were among the hardest hit businesses during the pandemic as people were slow to return to indoor dining, even after it was allowed to reopen. Most restaurants adopted online ordering, carryout orders and delivery or created outdoor dining spaces once the weather warmed up, but for some, it wasn’t enough.

Appleton’s Harmony Pizza struggled since the moment Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order went into effect in mid-March last year. The business switched to delivery and takeout, but it wasn’t enough to keep the doors open.

When the eatery, which was known as a gathering spot for the community, closed in early May, it had just two employees, down from the 12 employed before the pandemic hit. 

Matty Burns, the restaurant’s managing partner, says shutting down the business and reopening it once people could safely gather again wasn’t financially feasible. While closing the 3-year-old business was hard, it was necessary, he says.

While Dura-Fibre LLC in Menasha saw its revenue decline during 2020, it received a huge boost when a vaccine manufacturer selected it to produce specialty laminated paperboard sleeves and inserts to protect vaccines during shipment.

The company’s multi-ply laminated and die-cut sleeve is part of a sophisticated packaging and cold chain distribution system aimed at providing critical temperature control for shipping vaccines, says Dura-Fibre’s President Luke Benrud.

“We’ve built a reputation over the years for our multi-ply laminated products, so when other companies couldn’t deliver on what they wanted, they came to us,” he says.

Shipping the vaccine isn’t easy. It needs to be kept at a precise low temperature. “We’re one piece of the supply chain, but an important piece,” Benrud says.

Dura-Fibre employs 75 and Benrud says the contract for the vaccine paperboard sleeves and inserts provided a needed business boost. 

“While our revenue was down, we were able to keep all of our employees on board. It’s nice to now have this project to keep everyone busy,” he says.

Benrud says it’s exciting to be part of a solution to the pandemic. “We’re happy to be involved and getting the country past this terrible pandemic,” he says.

However the pandemic affected businesses, Steve Jenkins, executive director of the Door County Economic Development Corp., says every one needed to evaluate its situation and look at ways to better compete in the new economic reality. 

“We shared a lot of information and worked with businesses to help them transition. Sixty-eight percent of our businesses have less than four employees and they really need a lot of care,” he says. “The good news is that many of our retailers and restaurants had a great year since we were able to get out the word to travelers that Door County was a safe place to vacation.”

New North, Inc. is the regional economic development corporation that includes the following 18 counties: Brown, Calumet, Door, Florence, Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Marinette, Marquette, Menominee, Oconto, Outagamie, Shawano, Sheboygan, Waupaca, Waushara and Winnebago.