With miles of endless forest and shoreline, the Northwoods counties of Marinette, Oconto and Florence face the unique challenge of balancing the preservation of their natural beauty while also keeping the local economy humming along.
The key to the area’s economic success lies in growing entrepreneurship, tourism and its strong industrial sectors such as shipbuilding and forestry products, says Jim Golembeski, executive director of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board. “They’re a vital part of the New North and we want to make sure they stay connected and feel a part of what we’re doing,” he says.
Part of that connection is holding an annual Northwoods Economic Development Summit each fall to talk about issues key to the area. Entrepreneurship and growing small business were key themes during the fifth annual event held in October.
“These northern areas likely won’t attract an established, new business so we really need to ramp up the entrepreneur activity and grow the economy that way,” Golembeski says. “Growing new businesses among the locals is essential to the future of this area.”
With speakers from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Center for Entrepreneurship, E-Hub and UP Smart Zone, the summit’s goal was to educate attendees about ways to help new businesses get off the ground and grow.
That’s already happening in Florence County, where more than 60 new businesses have been created in the past four years, says Wendy Gehlhoff, director of the Florence County Economic Development Corp.
“We work very closely with our small businesses and entrepreneurs to help them find ways to help each other, whether it’s through referrals or other means,” she says.
“Small business is a key part of our local economy. There are few employers who have more than 15 people on staff.”
BUILDING ON A STRONG FOUNDATION
Shipbuilding has played a key role in Marinette’s history and today the industry is one of the city’s key economic drivers. Marinette Marine – with about 700 employees – is one of the county’s largest employers. Earlier this year, Marinette Marine received a Navy order for a Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), similar to one built last year.
Now Marinette Marine officials are awaiting word from the U.S. Navy to see if the company will have the opportunity to build 25 more ships through a partnership with Lockheed Martin. The decision on that project – which would allow Marinette Marine to bring back the 100-plus employees laid off earlier this year and may lead to the hiring of even more workers in Marinette and Sturgeon Bay – is expected before the end of November.
“If we receive the Navy contract, it will be huge for Marinette, as well as the entire region. It will be a huge economic shot in the arm,” says Don Clewley, executive director of the Marinette County Association for Business and Industry.
In addition to the U.S. Navy bid, Marinette Marine is pursuing other lines of business, including work with government and military sectors.
While officials in Marinette are optimistic about that city’s economic engine, Niagara is still reeling from the 2008 closing of the NewPage pulp mill, which put 319 people in this city of 1,800 out of work.
NewPage says it will sell the facility, but that’s a tall order given the current economic climate.
Marinette County received a grant earlier this year from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce to develop an adaptive re-use plan for the 565,000-plus square-foot-mill. One idea is to break the site up and sell or lease the space to different owners for different uses.
In addition to the physical space, NewPage also owns acres of unused land that could potentially be sold.
“We are receiving interest in the site and things are promising,” Clewley says.
One part of the facility, however, has already found new life: the onsite hydroelectric plant. In March, NewPage sold it for an undisclosed price to Northbrook Wisconsin LLC, a Chicago-based company involved in the operation of electric power facilities.
The plant is also being looked at as a side for a cellulosic ethanol plant. A New North, Inc. study found there was enough biomaterial near the former mill to make the site viable. Another study will now look at the feasibility of converting the facility into a cellulosic ethanol plant and the ability to effectively transport biomass fuel from the plant to key markets.
THE TOURISM PIECE
With miles of wilderness and shoreline, the Northwoods is rich in natural beauty, so tourism continues to be a strong segment of the local economy.
As thousands of deer hunters take to the woods this month for the start of the gun deer season, the role visitors play in the economy is hard to miss.
In 2008, tourists spent $204.8 million in the counties of Marinette, Florence and Oconto, which is down just slightly from the 2007 numbers.
“Tourism is one of our top three industries” in Florence County, Gehlhoff says. “We do a lot of work with businesses on cross promotion, so if a visitor comes in and wants to know about a good place to eat, we can provide them a list of the options.”
Summer is the busiest season, but tourism does go on year-round, Gehlhoff says.
Florence recently updated its downtown to appear more attractive to visitors, she adds. A new welcome sign was also added to the downtown.
“We put in new benches and refurbished all the planters and then put the same kind of flowers in all of them, which creates a more unified look,” Gehlhoff says. “We have really worked to beautify our downtown.”