Several manufacturers, especially ones with ties to the defense and automotive supply chains, are doing well and in an expansion mode, says Dave Thiel, executive director of the Waupaca County Economic Development Corp.
“Things are definitely improving,” he says as he rattles off a string of employers who are currently expanding or recently expanded, such as Centerline Machine in Waupaca, Custom Fiberglass Molding in Weyauwega and Clintonville’s Schutt Industries and Walker Forge.
Walker Forge is in the middle of a $25 million expansion project that is not only increasing the company’s footprint in Clintonville, but also bringing in new equipment, says plant manager Rick Recktenwald.
“We’re expanding so fast and are so busy,” he says. “The economy is getting stronger.”
Walker Forge does closed-die forging or impression die forging to produce a variety of steel parts for customers. Owned by W.T. Walker Group – which also owns and operates Walker Forge’s neighbor in the Clintonville Industrial Park, Precision Thermal Processing – the company has added at least 80 employees in the past couple of years, bringing the total to about 370, Recktenwald says.
The company is adding 46,000 square feet of space to its current 300,000 square foot facility. The project is being aided by $685,000 in tax credits and $18 million in industrial revenue bonds from the state as well as $78,000 from local TIF incentives.
“The city has been phenomenal to work with,” Recktenwald says. “They are very supportive of our growth and are easy to work with.”
Walker Forge isn’t the only Clintonville company growing.
Schutt Industries, another industrial park tenant, recently completed an expansion of its main office and manufacturing building. Schutt, a leading manufacturer of trailers for the U.S. military, added a 14,000-square-foot addition to house a new quality assurance facility, four new receiving docks and additional manufacturing space. Last fall, Schutt received a five-year U.S. Army contract valued at $80 million.
Clintonville’s service sector is also getting a boost with Klein Chevrolet Buick building a new 24,000-square-foot dealership downtown while Kwik Trip and Walgreens build new stores on Klein’s former site.
“We’re excited about our new construction and view it as a reinvestment in the Clintonville community that has supported us throughout the years,” says Charlie Klein, owner of Klein Chevrolet Buick. “Growth in a community is always a good thing. ”
With nearly a quarter of county residents employed in the manufacturing sector, Thiel says making sure there’s a sufficient, quality workforce available for companies is a top priority.
“There’s no question there will be a worker shortage as the boomers begin to retire,” he says.
To that end, about 10 years ago, when unemployment rates were below 5 percent, Thiel, Recktenwald and others created a program called Investing in Our Future: The School to Manufacturing Program. The program creates partnerships between manufacturers and local high schools and exposes students to potential career opportunities. Students sign up for an eight-week summer session, where they get on-the-job experience at a local manufacturer.
“The program is a win-win. The students get to experience a career in manufacturing and local companies are connected to talented students,” Thiel says.
Recktenwald says Clintonville High School as well as Fox Valley Technical College are open to showcasing manufacturing careers. “There’s an understanding that these are good jobs and we need to grow a workforce for them. That’s something that can only benefit the community,” he says.