After working in economic development in the region for more than 20 years, Peter Thillman was named chief economic development officer of Shawano County Economic Progress Inc. earlier this year. His first day on the job was March 9 and by the following week, everything but essential businesses had closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. In an industry that relies on meeting people to discuss plans, projects and developments, Thillman turned to Zoom and phone calls as a way to meet area business leaders.
In talking with business leaders, workforce — and getting more Shawano County residents to stay and work in the county — was a top issue they wanted to address. Despite COVID-19, a top goal remains getting the 30 percent of residents who leave the county daily for a job to remain in the community.
How are Shawano County businesses doing in the face of the pandemic and recession?
Peter Thillman: Reaching out to the county’s large employers was one of my first priorities after I got settled in. I continue to check in on how things are going. I can tell you the county’s three casinos have been hit hard. Bringing in entertainment is a moneymaker for them and now that’s not happening. Many of their (slot) machines are shut off since they need to have social distancing. Our manufacturers, for the most part, are doing well. Belmark, which works in packaging, is really busy.
I can tell you that in the hospitality sector, everyone but the hotels are having record years. Campgrounds, marinas, boat sales and pontoon rentals have never been higher. People have changed how they’re spending their free time. They want to still do things, but they want it to be at a safe distance from other people.
You were originally hired to help grow Shawano County’s existing workforce, and then the pandemic and economic slowdown hit. How has that changed your job?
Workforce remains a big issue in the county. We export 30 percent of our workforce to surrounding counties. We want to keep those workers in Shawano County to help fill our available jobs and be that available workforce to help attract new employers to the county. Shawano County is quite large — on the eastern end, people gravitate toward Brown County, while on the western end, they look to Antigo and Wausau. There’s also people who head south to the Fox Valley. We want them to stay here.
We have a solid workforce. Our county is still heavily into agriculture. People who grew up on farms have a good set of skills from working with their hands to fix different things and a good work ethic. Businesses know that. You can easily train someone how to do a certain skill, but it’s hard to train someone to have a good work ethic.
Several communities in the New North struggle with having enough housing. Is that true in Shawano?
We have seen a huge increase in the demand for housing. Right now, our real estate agents are getting inundated with people from Madison, Milwaukee or Chicago looking for a place to move given how quickly COVID-19 spread in urban areas or just want to have a place to get away to. They want a place where they can still work and enjoy nature and outdoor activities. COVID really changed how people look at their lives and what they value.
There is also a need for more housing for the workforce. For example, if Bonduel High School hires a teacher and she can’t find a place locally and then lives in Green Bay, how likely is she to stay long term in the community? If we can have more places for young professionals to live, they will settle here and hopefully put down roots. There’s a new apartment complex going up on Engel Drive here in Shawano that will be a big help in that area.
We also have a connectivity issue in the county, which can affect where people may decide to live. We’re working with New North on an EDA (U.S. Economic Development Administration) grant to increase broadband access and equity. We’re working right now with the New North on a map of where there’s broadband access in the county. Sometimes, residents don’t know who provides broadband service in their area. They call Spectrum and they say no, so they stop right there. They aren’t aware that Wittenberg Telephone Co. provides broadband or that they can get wireless broadband from Bertram Internet, who’s based in Random Lake. Broadband is essential not only for students who need it for school or people who need it to work from home, but it also helps people receive health care remotely. They can go online and have a doctor’s visit, which saves them driving time, reduces exposure to potential diseases at a clinic and saves money overall. Broadband also needs to not only be accessible, but affordable.
Shawano County isn’t all that far from other areas with a larger population. Do you see that as a plus in attracting new businesses?
Definitely. We are in a good location for businesses’ supply chains. Highway 29 is a good road and you can get to Green Bay in 30 minutes. Our land is also cheaper than it is around those larger cities. That’s what Belmark and Reinhart Foodservice both found. They have sites elsewhere but chose Shawano as a place to expand. Overall, the community is in a really good position and we’re seeing growth patterns from the east in Brown County to the west. In a few years, you might not realize that there used to be a lot of farm fields between Howard and Bonduel.