Cruising With The Chain Gang

Posted on Sep 1, 2009 :: Down Time
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

From left: Ryan Delaney, Terri Schulz, Deb Johnson, Donovan Lane

The Lady of the Lakes slips away from the dock at Clear Water Harbor on a perfect summer afternoon, easing out onto Taylor Lake on the eastern edge of Waupaca’s Chain O’ Lakes on its way to a 90-minute tour of 10 of the lakes. Most of the 30 or so passengers aboard are sightseers, including an enthusiastic group from an Appleton-area senior center. But four of the passengers have been on the Chain many times before and are on this trip just to let an outsider have a look at what Waupaca has to offer.

“Waupaca’s about a lot more than the Chain O’ Lakes,” says Terri Schulz, president of the Waupaca Area Chamber of Commerce, but she adds that the 20-plus lakes that make up the Chain do provide a powerful attraction for visitors and would-be residents.

Deb Johnson, general manager of Waupaca’s Best Western Grand Seasons Hotel, doesn’t need any persuading about the natural attractions of the Waupaca area. About 50 percent of her hotel’s guests are business travelers. The rest are weekenders and vacationers who come to enjoy the fishing, boating and swimming on the lakes during the summer months, and the hunting, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing during other seasons.

“It’s a great location for a lot of people,” says Johnson, “because it’s close to the Fox Cities and Green Bay, and even to Milwaukee and Chicago. So, it makes an easy and inexpensive getaway. It gets them away from the hustle and bustle.”

For business owners Ryan Delaney, president of Spirit Implements, and Donovan Lane, CEO of ABC Computers, Waupaca’s natural setting and small-town ambience make it easier to attract top-quality employees.

“When we started out here 25 years ago, we thought trying to get people to come to a small town was going to be a really tough thing to do,” says Lane. “As it turns out, for a lot of business professionals with kids in school, they love it. The biggest thing they like about coming to work is that they’re living in Waupaca and they’re able to work in paradise basically. When we bring someone in for an interview, one of the things we do is we take them out on the Chain and we drive them around town and after that they’re hooked.”

“Growing up here, I took a lot of this for granted,” says Delaney, “so when I graduated from high school I thought ‘I’m getting out.’ I left, but I came right back home. In our business we almost always work four 10-hour days, so that allows the guys to have a three-day weekend every week, so they get to go out and fish in the summer, ice fish in the winter and do other activities.”

Schulz says that tourism remains a critical part of Waupaca’s economy, but even tourists often end up becoming community leaders, says Lane.

“We get people who come here for years and years in the summertime,” says Lane, “and they say, ‘Man when I retire I want to come live in Waupaca.’ So then they retire and come up here and decide they’re going to open a shop, or they get involved in the Chamber or the churches or what have you. You have this cross-section of home-grown, small-town people, and then you have people who are attracted to that.”

The Lady of the Lakes is making its way down Long Lake at the southwestern end of the Chain when Capt. Max Verhagen, who’s kept a running (usually humorous) commentary over the P.A. system, notes the clarity of the water. That’s because of the “natural filter” provided by the Crystal River, which drains the lake, Verhagen says, comparing the filtering process to “a giant toilet.” He draws loud laughs from throughout the Lady.

Truth is, the lakes in the Chain are crystal clear and a visitor is left with little doubt that living and working here would be a little like paradise. “We have the perfect place,” says Schulz.