Riding Strong – Northwoods manufacturers power economy forward

Posted on Nov 1, 2011 :: Economic Development
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Mention economic development and Marinette and three words jump instantly to mind: Marinette Marine Corporation. And with good reason. In the past year, the company announced it secured a multi-billion contract to build up to 10 littoral combat ships for the U.S. Navy and another $123 million contract to build the Alaska Region Research Vessel for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, now under construction.

“We’re very excited about everything going on right now in the ship yard,” says Chuck Goddard, Marinette Marine’s president and chief operating officer. “Our buildings are full right now.”

The second littoral combat ship built at Marinette Marine, USS Fort Worth (LCS 3), launched in the Menominee River last December, is nearly complete and is undergoing sea trials this fall in Green Bay. The USS Milwaukee (LCS 5) is in the early stages of construction, and the USS Detroit (LCS 7) will start production later this year.

To make sure the company can fulfill those orders, Marinette Marine Corp. is upgrading its shipyard facilities and hiring about 35 new workers a month.

It doesn’t end there. Other companies are seeing increased business as they provide services and products to the company (not to mention the construction crews hired to expand the ship yard).

“Anytime you add 1,000 jobs to the economy, you’re going to see a positive impact,” says Don Clewly, executive director of the Marinette County Economic Development Corp. “Plus, you figure in that about every five jobs created another job out in the community because more people are working, so business gets better for everyone.”

Fincantieri Marine Group – Marinette Marine’s parent company – is spending upwards of $73 million in upgrading the shipyard. Buildings have been expanded so up to two LCS vessels can be worked on at the same time and new buildings are going up or will go up soon to handle steel and fabrication functions, blasting and painting and delicate outfitting.

Smet Construction is the lead construction firm on the projects. “The money we’re spending on these upgrades is going right back into the local economy,” Goddard says.

The company is also working with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College to help train new workers and recently launched a partnership with a couple of local high schools to raise interest in shipbuilding careers.

“We’re excited about getting high schools interested in what’s going on here. The schools have great vocational programs and we’re trying to tap into that so the students can even start learning in high school what they need to know to work in the shipyard,” Goddard says.

Marinette Marine isn’t the only county employer expanding. Karl Schmidt Unisia Inc., a private company that makes pistons and piston rings, has grown from 250 workers in Marinette back in 1985 to more than 900 today.

“Karl Schmidt Unisia is also on the lookout for more employees, especially skilled machine operators,” Clewly says. “Lots of positive things are happening.

Another employer, Tyco Fire Productions Products, just finished a record year and employs about 700. The company is planning to open an engineering Center for Excellence for research and development this fall.

Goddard says he’s excited other companies are finding success.

“We recently had our annual Northwoods Summit and it was great to hear so many stories from other companies in the Marinette area who are doing well right now,” he says.

Florence County eyes hotel

As a popular tourist destination for not only hunters, but also people who enjoy the great outdoors for hiking, biking and canoeing, Florence County is still missing a key piece of the tourism picture: A hotel.

While the area is home to campgrounds and the Nicolet Lodge and Lakeside Bed & Breakfast, it lacks a hotel that provides mid – to upper- level accommodations and services. County officials are looking to change that by forming a tax increment finance (TIF) district that would help attract a developer.

Wendy Gehlhoff, executive director of the Florence County Economic Development Corp., says the county did a feasibility study in 2008 that found the community could sustain a small hotel with as many as 20 to 30 rooms.

“Unfortunately, the economy has made it hard to get the project off the ground,” Gelhoff says. “We’re hoping having a TIF district in place will change that.”

Since Florence County does not have any incorporated cities or villages, state law needed to be changed to allow counties to form TIF districts. Now that change has gone through so Gehlhoff is optimistic that a TIF could spur the hotel development, along with a grocery store/hardware store that the community also needs.

“Tourism is a strong industry here. People come here to escape – there’s not a stoplight in the whole county – but we want to make sure they have the services they need when they’re here so they are not running to Iron Mountain (in Michigan) to stay in hotels, eat, buy gas and such. We feel that’s revenue we’re losing out on,” Gehlhoff says.

While the county waits to see if the planned hotel can get off the ground, Gehlhoff says that overall Florence County’s economy is doing well since businesses involved in the forest products industries are seeing increased growth.

“They are adding jobs and updating equipment,” she says. “It’s a boon to the economy here.”


Oconto hospital expansion

The Oconto Hospital & Medical Center is getting a major facelift

The hospital, which was built in 1985 as a partnership between Bellin Health of Green Bay and Oconto Hospital Citizens’ Foundation, will go from its current footprint of 11,000 square feet to more than 50,000 square feet by next summer.

Overall, the hospital and medical center expansion project is expected to account for nearly $26 million in economic activity, says Laura Cormier, vice president of operations at the hospital and medical center.

“This project is an example of the good things that are happening in the city of Oconto and of the things that can be achieved when we partner together to improve the overall health and wellness of our community,” she says.

The expansion will allow the hospital to offer outpatient surgery, colonoscopy and other gastrointestinal services, cardiac echograms and stress testing, expanded infusion care, specialist services and expanded behavioral health services.

Currently, the hospital serves about 7,000 patients annually with that number expected to rise to 16,000 when the project is complete.