The Door Is Open

Posted on Jun 1, 2009 :: Development
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

The historic Steel Bridge at Michigan Street.

Say “Door County” and images of cozy downtowns with unique shops, wineries and miles of beautiful shoreline pop into your head. But Bill Chaudoir wants to put another image into that mix – Door County is a great place to start and grow your business.

Chaudoir is the executive director of the 20-year-old Door County Economic Development Corp., a public/private partnership dedicated to improving the county’s economic vitality.

“Entrepreneurship is a great way to grow the county’s economy,” he says. “People visit here and fall in love with the place and think about wanting to live here. They may want to bring a business here or want to start something new.”

The county’s business incubator is an essential tool in helping businesses get started on the right foot while growing the local economy, Chaudoir adds.

Since opening in 1997, 19 businesses have “graduated” from the incubator and moved into their own buildings. Those companies have created 79 jobs. Today, 12 businesses with 31 employees call the incubator in the Sturgeon Bay Industrial Park home.

“We are lucky to have a modern facility like this in a town of this size,” says Chaudoir, adding the incubator facility was built with federal grant funds after shipbuilders cut hundreds of jobs in the mid-1990s. “Incubators are great economic development tools.”

Since joining the incubator three years ago, Door County Natural Stone has found success in its granite and marble fabrication business. Before moving in, owner Jeff Tebo attended a course offered by the Door County Economic Development Corp. on developing a plan to help chart the business’ future.

“The business plan development was a huge boon to us, as is being able to use this facility. It has offerings, such as a loading dock and a big break room, that we never could have had if we were in a facility on our own just starting out,” Tebo says. “We’re one big happy family at the incubator. It’s great to see other entrepreneurs and to bounce off ideas.”

Door County Natural Stone is now thinking of taking the next step and “graduating” from the incubator to its own facility, Tebo says. “We have been so lucky to be here. It will be hard to move on when it’s time,” he says.

Chaudoir says the incubator is at 90 percent occupancy and welcomed four new businesses in 2008 – Peapod Homes, Affordable Portable Spas of Door County, Chapman Technical Services and Englewood Electrical Supply Company.

Staying connected
Without a reliable telecommunications network, businesses may have a hard time keeping up in a fast-paced economy, Chaudoir says. “We’ve known for awhile our telecommunications network isn’t the best. For a long time, there was only one fiber-optic line coming in to Door County with no back-up. It’s a price we pay for living on a peninsula. We have worked hard in recent years to remedy that solution.”

Door County is now working with Norlight Telecommunications on a plan to create a fiber-optic backbone throughout the county, Chaudoir says.

“Having a broadband Internet connection is a critical tool in today’s world and not just for business. People need it for their personal needs,” he says. “There are many places in Door County where people can only get dial-up and we’re working to expand the offerings.”

Norlight has proposed putting in a fiber-optic network in certain parts of the county, coupled with a robust wireless network to reach more businesses and homes in the county.

“The proposed network would help to advance the ability of existing businesses to grow and also provide an appealing lure for potential new business opportunities,” Chaudoir says. “We also have a lot of visitors who conduct business from here and we would like to provide them with a more reliable network.”

Door County is hoping to tap into federal stimulus dollars to help with the technology upgrades, Chaudoir says.

Washington Island isn’t being left behind as the county’s online infrastructure is being strengthened. The Washington Island Electric Cooperative has partnered with IBEC to provide broadband Internet service over power lines, bringing high-speed connectivity throughout the island community.

Shipbuilding legacy
For more than 100 years, shipbuilders have been a key industry in Door County. To make sure that rich tradition continues thriving, the Door County Economic Development Corp. partnered with the City of Sturgeon Bay, Boldt Technical Services, Palmer Johnson Yachts and Bay Shipbuilding to create a shipbuilding cluster master plan. Chaudoir says the plan addresses the future infrastructure needs of Sturgeon Bay’s two shipbuilders.

For example, Palmer Johnson is expanding its current building and also looking for a location for an even larger production facility. Palmer Johnson and Bay Shipbuilding are also working together to upgrade the boat launch system used by both companies.

The Italian shipbuilding company Fincantieri Marine Group bought Manitowoc Marine Group (which includes Bay Shipbuilding and Marinette Marine) from Manitowoc Company on Jan. 1. Chaudoir is optimistic that the acquisition will lead to further growth at Bay Shipbuilding. “They are committed to growing their business,” he says.

“Both shipyards are looking at ways to improve and upgrade their facilities,” Chaudoir says, referring to Bay Shipbuilding and Palmer Johnson. “Both are feeling the impact of the recession, but they are preparing for growth so they can come out stronger when the economy improves.”