A new name and new faces have breathed life into an old concept: pitching the economic vitality of the Interstate 41 corridor.
As the signs for I-41 began appearing like wildflowers along the region’s arterial roadway in early 2015, the economic development organizations along the highway’s path through Northeast Wisconsin saw that an old axiom — there is power in numbers — could create new opportunities by marketing the collective capabilities of the companies and communities along the route.
“The amount of sophisticated manufacturing and talent located within 10 miles of either side of the Interstate is mind-boggling,” says Steve Jenkins, president of the Fond du Lac Economic Development Corporation. “We have a great story to tell.”
And a tremendous market to offer, as the region is home to more than 800,000 people and a myriad of industry and world-leading companies along the route, from Fond du Lac in the south to Green Bay in the north, says Rob Kleman, senior vice president for economic development at the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce.
“It represents the second-largest market in Wisconsin, and with the skill sets we have from Green Bay through the Fox Cities and Oshkosh to Fond du Lac, we have a lot to sell,” Kleman says.
The idea of selling the communities along I-41 is not a new one. A previous Highway 41 corridor group also marketed the collective talents of the region. However, that group’s activity level began to taper off as advocates moved on and old parochial challenges sometimes slowed progress.
But a revival of the corridor marketing strategy received a boost when Congress passed legislation in late 2014 clearing the final hurdle for including 175 miles of what was U.S. Highway 41, from Green Bay to the Illinois border, for inclusion in the interstate system. The interstate designation is often a trigger for site selectors and companies looking to expand or relocate.
As federal and state highway officials began to integrate I-41 into the interstate system, economic development leaders in Green Bay, the Fox Cities, Oshkosh and Fond du Lac began to meet regularly to discuss developing a collaborative attraction strategy for the corridor. New players in key positions eased the group around previous parochial challenges.
After several productive meetings, the group is now moving forward with creating a formal arrangement among the respective agencies to develop that strategy and put financing behind it, says Manny Vasquez, vice president for economic development with the Fox Cities Regional Partnership.
“Their idea is to leverage the assets we all have, and each of us has a budget we can draw on,” Vasquez says. “There is a great deal of trust within the group and I am pretty confident we will raise the profile of the region.”
The effort is meant to be complementary, not duplicative, to the work organizations such as New North are doing to promote the region, Kleman says. He notes there are several organizations, such as Northeast Wisconsin Education Resource Alliance or Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance, that are working to promote specific sectors that benefit the region as a whole.
If anything, a win for the corridor is a win for the entire region.
“Success for any one community tends to spill over for all of us,” Jenkins says.
History has certainly shown that benefit. Workers commute from all across the region to manufacturing giants such as Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac or Oshkosh Corp. Companies such as Schreiber Foods in Green Bay and Kimberly-Clark in the Fox Cities also provide a host of benefits that carry over far beyond city political boundaries.
Individual communities will certainly compete with each other for specific projects, Vasquez says. It’s raising the region’s profile and attracting those initial leads that will get a boost from a collaborative strategy.
“The feedback we received from the site selector tour (in late summer of 2015) was quite positive about using a regional approach,” Vasquez says. “If we can increase the visibility and create even more leads, there will be more opportunities for everyone.”
For Peter Zaehringer, a collective approach is a proven strategy that can help both the individual communities, as well as the region as a whole, move past the status quo for attracting prospects.
“We can certainly continue to work the same way as communities and achieve the same results,” says Zaehringer, vice president for economic development with Advance, a program of the Greater Green Bay Chamber. “Or, we can band together and achieve something even greater. A project may go to a specific region, but the whole region benefits.”
The agencies involved will be hammering out the final details of a memorandum of understanding during the next several weeks that will be presented to each group’s board of directors for approval. Once the approvals are in hand, the group will begin working in earnest on developing and executing its attractions strategy.
“I don’t know if there will be a ‘start date’ that will be noticed,” Vasquez says. “But the 2016 calendar year is where we will put it all together and get it working.”