Uniquely situated

Door, Kewaunee counties devise ways to combat housing, worker shortages

Posted on May 1, 2017 :: Economic Development
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Picture Door County and the mind conjures images of Lake Michigan, quaint waterside towns and abounding natural beauty. The benefits of living and doing business on the peninsula are fairly obvious.

Perhaps equally obvious are the challenges Door County presents: seasonal, tourism-dependent economy, limited access to housing and workers, and yes, that whole living and working on a peninsula business.

The peninsula part won’t change, and of course no one wants it to, but Caleb Frostman, executive director of the Door County Economic Development Corp., says the county is working to address the other difficulties.

With a vacancy rate of less than 3 percent in the county, affordable and attainable housing proves a persistent challenge. Frostman says the county would like to see more multifamily housing. Sturgeon Bay recently signed development agreements for sites west of the city, where 56 market-rate apartment units will be developed, and two infill lots in the city for construction of another 48.

The Bay Lofts, a $7.7 million development in Sturgeon Bay, opens in May. The upscale, 37-unit, market-rate, mixed-use complex features 5,000 square feet of retail space.

“If housing is our No. 1 issue, workforce is a close second” Frostman says. “If you can find a qualified candidate, good luck finding a place to house them.”

Frostman says Door County is taking steps to attract and retain workers. It starts with connecting middle and high school students in the region to the business community early and often to retain the county’s young population.

DCEDC has also applied for a $50,000 capacity-building grant that would allow the organization to create a marketing campaign targeted at luring millennials and encouraging tourists to become permanent residents.

“I’m hoping that we can continue to have an engaged core of young folks who are banding together for the greater good,” Frostman says.

Door County businesses expand

Business is booming in the Sturgeon Bay Industrial Park, with expansions in the past few years at Therma-Tron-X, Cadence and Pro Products Inc.

Pro Products, a CNC machine shop, completed a 40,000-square-foot expansion in 2015. Jon Hurley, the company’s vice president, says success with customers led to the growth.

Hurley says the company is hiring and does face workforce challenges. Pro Products focuses on attracting and retaining young talent and has partnered with Sturgeon Bay and Southern Door high schools to address the problem.

“We’ve had really good success recruiting high school students,” he says.

Last year, Cadence, a contract manufacturing company headquartered in Virginia, opened a $5 million facility in Sturgeon Bay. Sandy Sekadlo, vice president of manufacturing, says the facility is three times larger and offers a space that shows well to customers and allows the company to focus on Lean manufacturing.

“We’re no longer limited in space,” she says. “When we planned our new building, we had growth in mind.”

On the tourism and hospitality side, Door County Brewing Co. will move into its new facility on the site of the former Fish Creek Moccasin Works in Bailey’s Harbor on July 1. The company has grown in its four years, increasing production from 249 barrels its first year to more than 2,500 this year.

John McMahon, CEO and founder, says the new space reflects the laidback vibe of the peninsula’s lake side. It has no TVs, but by no means is it a quiet space. “It’s organic noise,” says McMahon. “We encourage loitering.”

Other changes include a new location for CHOP in Sister Bay, and Pasta Vino will move back to Sister Bay. Door County Artisan Cheese Co. opened in Egg Harbor. Housed in a new building, it features cheese, chocolate, wine and a café. Cheese is made onsite, and visitors can interact with cheesemakers.

Tourism is a key industry for Door County. Direct visitor spending rose by nearly 6 percent in 2015, the last year complete data is available. Total tourism sales topped $424 million, and more than 3,100 people work in the tourism-related businesses in the county, the data shows.

Kewaunee County addresses workforce needs

Lynie Vincent, chairman of the board of the Kewaunee County Economic Development Corp., says the county suffered setbacks with the closing of the Kewaunee Power Station, Masonite Corp. and Algoma Hardwoods.

At the same time, Vincent, corporate vice president/vice president of sales and marketing for N.E.W. Plastics Corp., says companies in the county struggle to find workers.

His company and D&S Machine Service of Luxemburg have worked with area schools and brought in ninth-graders to expose them to the world of manufacturing.

“We want to keep those bright kids here in our community and help us grow our business,” he says.

On the tourism front, Vincent says it’s a “chicken-and-the-egg” issue waiting for harbor improvements that will come with a $4.2 million state grant. Once the seawall is improved and repaired, he says, the county can focus on developing a boardwalk.

Difficulties aside, Vincent says Kewaunee County offers tightknit communities in the best sense possible. Residents know what’s going on with their neighbors and support one another.

Tim Treml, newly appointed president of the Bank of Luxemburg, agrees. When Union State Bank closed in Kewaunee, residents missed having a small, community financial institution and asked Bank of Luxemburg to fill the void. The bank opened a branch in the city in April.

Bank of Luxemburg remains focused on helping small businesses, Treml says. “A lot of the larger financial institutions aren’t going to deal with the smaller businesses,” he says. “Bank of Luxemburg is going to continue to grow because of our commitment to the communities we live in.”