Rolling Out The Green Carpet

Posted on Aug 1, 2010 :: Development
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Destination Kohler

Although Sheboygan County will be in the national spotlight this month as the PGA Championship returns to the Whistling Straits Golf Course on Lake Michigan, the county’s economic development corporation is hoping that attention doesn’t fade once the TV cameras and crowds leave.

The Sheboygan County Economic Development Corp. opened its office in January and hired Patrick Drinan to lead the charge to develop and nurture the county’s economy, which has taken its hits in recent years as employers have cut jobs or even closed up shop.

While the office and executive director are new, the development corporation isn’t. Formed in 1984 as the Sheboygan Development Corporation by local business leaders to help facilitate public and private partnerships, the group was involved in the development of Sheboygan’s waterfront, including the South Pier redevelopment and the Harbor Centre Marina. Last summer in the depths of the recession, the SDC amended its articles of incorporation and evolved into the Sheboygan County

Economic Development Corporation (SCEDC), which now focuses on development county-wide.
“Our goal is to organize and coordinate economic development opportunities throughout the county and secure its long-term prosperity and growth,” says Drinan, who came to Sheboygan from Brookfield. “We’re also a clearinghouse for people wanting information about opportunities in the county or seeking information.”

Since January, the SCEDC has gone through a comprehensive strategic planning process and outlined a five-year plan to grow the local economy. Strategic goals were developed – create and retain jobs, increase capital investment by businesses, increase usage of the county’s revolving loan fund and increase the amount of money available in the loan fund.

“We have metrics tied to each of those goals to make sure we’re on track,” Drinan says. “Our goal is to create or retain 3,500 jobs in Sheboygan County within the next five years.”

That may be a tall order, but one Drinan says the SCEDC is up to. Sheboygan County has one of the state’s highest unemployment rates – it was 8.5 percent in April (the last month with available numbers) – and has seen long-time employers like Gardner Denver Inc. shut its doors, while other large companies like the Kohler Co. have cut hundreds of jobs.

Besides high unemployment, many businesses in the county – as well as elsewhere – are still having some difficulty securing capital for their expansion plans.

“I really think things are turning around. We are fielding more questions about getting help with expansion plans,” Drinan says. “We’re hearing positive news about upcoming hiring plans.”

The county’s history of strong family-owned businesses such as Kohler and Sargento are positives for the area, Drinan says. “We have a strong history to build on, as well as a strong workforce and a high quality of life here that can’t be matched,” he says.

That high-quality of life will be on display during the PGA Championships as TV cameras will show stunning images of not only Whistling Straits, but the surrounding countryside and lakeshore.

“We know we have a huge opportunity here with having the world watching. It’s a great showcase,” Drinan says. “We realize they aren’t here for business, it’s for fun but we still want to show what we have to offer.”

The golf tournament itself will pump in millions of dollars into the local economy. In 2004 – the last time the PGA Championship came to Whistling Straits – a study by NorthStar Economics estimated the tournament pumped an extra $76 million into the economy.

“The media exposure that we’ll get is huge. It’s our hope during the quiet time between strokes, they’ll talk about our county and all it has to offer,” says Betsy Alles, executive director of the Sheboygan County Chamber of Commerce. “We know that the people who come here for the tournament will spend a lot of their time at the course, but we want them to take a look around, see what we have to offer and book a return trip.”

Of course, if visitors enjoy their time so much in the county that they want to relocate to the area, all the better, she adds.

The chamber is moving into a new downtown office this fall and is working with the Sheboygan County Convention & Visitors Bureau to promote the city and town of Sheboygan while also working with the Tourism Alliance of Sheboygan County to promote the remainder of the county, says Alles, who joined the chamber in March.

We have so much to offer here – not only the golf courses – but also surfing and sailing along the lakefront, the historic Wade House, the list goes on. I sometimes feel like a kid in a candy store since there are many options,” she says. “The golf tournament is a tremendous opportunity to promote all of that.”

Getting the word out about assistance – financial and educational – available for businesses is one of the SDEDC’s main goals. The group has launched a website full of information about siting opportunities, entrepreneurial resources and county data.

“There’s a lot out there for businesses, you just need to know where to tap into it,” Drinan says, adding he works with businesses to educate them about revolving loan programs as well as state and federal grants.

The SDEDC is also working with local municipalities, the Sheboygan Chamber of Commerce and the county to create a one-stop spot where businesses can turn to have their economic development questions answered. “We are working on the same goal – growing Sheboygan County,” Drinan says. “It’s a very cooperative process.”

One business the SDEDC is working with is Morgan Aircraft of Oostburg. The company is looking to build a new type of jet, which can take off and land like a helicopter, at Sheboygan County Memorial Airport. If the project succeeds, it could create up to 2,000 jobs over the next 10 years.
“This is something still on the drawing board and they are working hard to raise funds for it,” Drinan says, adding the county has committed to more than $3 million in infrastructure and site improvements at the airport while the state is offering $30 million in economic incentives.