Door and Kewaunee counties are by no means alone in their struggles to secure adequate broadband connectivity for homes and businesses within their communities, but both are making major strides to do just that.
In March, the Public Service Commission awarded Kewaunee County a $1.4 million broadband expansion grant to help bring high-speed internet to the county. The grant funding will support an estimated $4 million project by Hilbert Communications, which is the parent company of Bug Tussel Wireless, to build a 61.7-mile fiber route throughout the county.
In addition, the Luxemburg Village Board entered into an agreement with wireless service provider Cellcom to provide high-speed fiber-to-the-premises internet, TV and voice services to every address in the village.
“From an economic development standpoint, that’s huge,” says Ben Nelson, the newly named executive director of the Kewaunee County Economic Development Corp.
Nelson says it can be hard for Kewaunee County, which is situated between Door and Brown counties, to set itself apart. Securing reliable broadband service will help make the area, which boasts a lower cost of living than its neighbors, more attractive to prospective residents, including those who want to work remotely, he says. Kewaunee County also is home to top-rated schools, and Luxemburg-Casco’s youth apprenticeship program ranks fourth in the state.
The City of Kewaunee also received good news in securing $1.75 million in Community Development Block Grant funding from the state Department of Administration. It will use the funds to acquire and remove blighted buildings and raise the property at Fisherman’s Point above the flood levels, allowing the land to be restored to its original natural condition.
“The funding is not only critical to public safety but also to improving our community,” Kewaunee Mayor Jason Jelinek said in a press release.
Nelson, who also owns a consulting business specializing in leadership development and talent management, says the pandemic affected Kewaunee County businesses unevenly. Many large manufacturers have fared well — for example, N.E.W. Plastics in Luxemburg recently completed an award-winning expansion project. At the same time, small businesses, especially those in hospitality, have struggled.
Top areas of concern for all businesses include workforce availability and determining how best to use American Rescue Plan funds to spur further development. Nelson says he also hopes to bolster support for entrepreneurs, adding that the pandemic has given many budding business owners time to develop their ideas.
“The overall sense that I get in the community is that everybody is ready to take this year on and try to recoup and recharge and really go forward,” he says.
The ‘new infrastructure’
Door County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Steve Jenkins says the trifecta of broadband, child care and affordable housing make up the new infrastructure in economic development, and they’re issues every community will need to address.
The county is in the midst of a broadband engineering assessment. Until a better solution is up and running, Jenkins says wireless and Starlink, a low-latency broadband internet system, can suffice, but “at the end of the day, it’s still going to be about fiber. That’s going to give us the greatest capacity and bandwidth across the county.”
The community and businesses are financially supporting the broadband work. A selection committee put forth a request for proposals and will soon select one of the submitted plans. Jenkins hopes to see significant progress on the broadband front by fall.
As for child care, the county is looking to embark on a study focused on innovation and sustainability. Communities and businesses need to find better ways to deliver care, Jenkins says. “As a nation, we have looked at child care the same way, using the same approaches, literally for decades, and it’s still not working. Why do we keep doing the same things?”
In October, the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority selected Door County as one of three pilot communities in its new Rural Affordable Workforce Housing Initiative. The county is addressing the need for affordable housing as well as housing for seasonal workers. Both will be necessary to support companies like Bay Shipbuilding, which continues to grow and expand as it takes on work from Fincantieri Marinette Marine’s U.S. Navy frigate contract, as well as hospitality businesses that rely on seasonal workers.
As part of its participation in the program, the county is holding workshops to identify pilot projects for affordable housing. Solutions could come in the areas of using novel construction methods and materials, or creating new processes or housing funds, Jenkins says.
On the tourism front, Door County saw a strong 2020 in spite of the pandemic and expects to see similar success in 2021. The Dörr Hotel in Sister Bay, the county’s first new hotel in nearly 20 years, will open in late May, and the Jim Kress Memorial Maritime Lighthouse Tower at the Door County Maritime Museum will open in May as well.
The latter is being completed in phases through 2022, and the DCMM is still seeking to raise $1.4 million for the project. The tower features 10 floors of interactive exhibits highlighting maritime history with a heavy focus on STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and math — education.
Sam Perlman, DCMM’s deputy director and development manager, says the $7 million lighthouse project, completed by The Boldt Co., will serve as a year-round attraction for the county and spur additional development in Sturgeon Bay’s western waterfront area.
“Our intent is to encourage children and young adults to consider one of many well-paying technical careers in the area and break the cycle of poverty in our local community,” Perlman says. “No other museum environment in this region of Wisconsin has a similar kind of immersive educational experience.”