Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, has developed quite the reputation for itself. The city is ranked tenth out of 357 metro areas for manufacturing job growth and 100th out of 240 small metros for overall jobs growth in 2014 by NewGeography. It is also ranked seventh out of 179 small metros for the presence of high-tech companies and 25th out of 179 small metros in the Best-Performing category by Milken Institute. And these are only a few of Fond du Lac’s recent recognitions!
Though it was founded in 1836, the real turning point for this population of just over 43,000 occurred long after that. In 2008, its largest employer, Mercury Marine, was contemplating relocating its operations, and 3,000 highly-paid and highly-skilled jobs were in jeopardy. This also indirectly threatened upwards of 8,000 jobs in the community and a further 11,000 in the state of Wisconsin. The move ultimately would have changed the direction that the community of Fond du Lac was heading. In 2009, Mercury had 1,526 direct employees that were in jeopardy. They now have 3,000 employees or almost double the 2009 employment. The total jobs lost in the County would have been 5,900; in the 7-county region, 8,000 jobs; 11,000 would have been lost for the state. Approximately 250 companies in Fond du Lac County provided jobs or services to Mercury Marine (and over 1,000 Wisconsin companies outside the County). The Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corporation performed the impact analysis that formed the business case for the sales tax referendum.
Collaborative efforts and smart decisions made by city partners, the Association of Commerce and the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corporation, created a pro-business climate. The moves helped the community to avert the potential economic fallout that could have resulted if Mercury had left.
“We have a strong support system here for manufacturing, which has been a cornerstone of our economy, as well as agriculture for its history,” shares Steve Jenkins, President of the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corporation.
The community and its leaders took action and worked to convince Mercury Marine to do otherwise. It did, not only staying, but moving its Oklahoma operations into Fond du Lac.
City Manager, Joe Moore explains. “In the aftermath, it was a real wake up call to always make sure that we are working together and looking toward the future because it has been both a blessing and a challenge to be so dependent on one major employer, especially when that one major employer has so many supporting private sector companies in association in the city. It’s very vital that we not only retain that business, but also attract other ones.”
“With the decision by Mercury to move their Oklahoma facilities here and not vice versa, it created a groundswell of new construction and new hiring. That was really the step needed to start the process of rejuvenating the economic future of the community,” says Joe Reitemeier, President of the Association of Commerce.
In addition to Mercury, Fond du Lac has a number of other successful companies and manufacturers. Fives, an industrial engineering company, is a major local manufacturer of machining parts and has been incredibly supportive of the community. Similarly, Grande Cheese will be moving its world headquarters to Fond du Lac, having just broken ground on its new facility.
Fond du Lac is also home to Wells Vehicle Electronics, which makes aftermarket electronic parts, such as ignitions and sensors for the automotive industry. Wells has started doing work for Mercury Marine. Advanced Tooling Inc., a homegrown company that manufactures drilling instruments, is another example of a small but advanced locally-based company.
J.F. Ahern also calls Fond du Lac home. With its LEED Gold certified corporate headquarters, prefabrication shops and company-wide support operations, it provides Fond du Lac and surrounding areas with construction, mechanical, fire protection and pipe fabrication contracting services. Ahern’s corporate facility is renowned for its sustainable construction, high-tech automation and robotic capabilities.
Reitemeier acknowledges the significant growth in the city’s economy since 2008. “What we really started recognizing, was that there was a tremendous economic potential in our community, and we have joined at the hip to make sure that we take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself and seek out newer ones as well.”
There are significant employment opportunities present in Fond du Lac. Community leaders and the private sector have working relationships with local educational institutions: the primary and secondary systems, Marian University, The University of Wisconsin – Fond du Lac and Moraine Park Technical College. The partnerships aim to groom the next generation of employees and support the local economy in the years to come, ensuring apprenticeship opportunities and support programs exist for young people and businesses alike.
Agnesian Health Care has become a well-known and dominant force in the health care sector in the Fond du Lac region of Wisconsin. It also provides a strong employment draw for nursing students from Marian University. The nursing program has continued to grow, requiring new space to expand and finding that space in the downtown through a partnership with the city of Fond du Lac. A base in the central city has brought student life to the heart of the city’s revitalized downtown.
Fond du Lac Works (www.fdlworks.com), a new Division within the Association of Commerce, provides a one-stop-shop for employers, job seekers, educators, parents and students alike. It has created a streamlined resource that provides information about the nature of the job market in Fond du Lac, attempts to satisfy current demands in the market and prepares for future demands which are sure to arise.
Initiatives such as Maximizing Opportunities in Retention and Expansion (M.O.R.E.) have been created. Sponsored by Mercury Marine, M.O.R.E. is the city’s business program that focuses on the growth of existing companies and industries in Fond du Lac, providing additional resources from which the community can build. The M.O.R.E Business! program is one of the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corporation’s initiatives and covers the entire County, including the City of Fond du Lac. It is sponsored and underwritten by Mercury Marine.
This year, another program was introduced to Fond du Lac: IGNITE! Business, a collaborative effort of fifteen local organizations that provide support services for local entrepreneurs. Together, the fifteen organizations have worked diligently and cooperatively over the last eighteen months to craft a streamlined procedure by which entrepreneurs can apply for assistance and gain access to local resources. The process has experienced exceptional results and gained national attention. IGNITE! Business Success has been spearheaded by the FCEDC over the last 18 months. The Center for Enterprise Development (CED), the 501(c)3 arm of the FCEDC , serves as the administrative and fiscal agent. IGNITE! covers the entire County and its foundation is the extensive entrepreneurial spirit that has historically existed in the community.
As the economy in Fond du Lac experiences growth, so too has the community. In order to support this growth, efforts have been undertaken to ensure that Fond du Lac remains a dynamic, full-service community. Significant efforts have been made to refocus attention to the heart of the city, creating a vibrant and unique downtown core. The downtown environment is designed to support the private sector and the community by accommodating the city’s growing commercial and retail areas.
“Over the last ten years, we’ve had $87 million in investment which is the most of any Main Street community in the state,” adds Dyann Benson, Fond du Lac Community Development Director. Benson went on to describe another project that is being developed in the downtown area at a 150-year-old manufacturing site, previously occupied by Wells Vehicle Electronics.
The project, she explains, “is in the process of developing into a mixed-use type development that will include a garden center, a landscaping business, retail/commercial space, as well as some residential. So, what could have been a brownfield site – vacant and abandoned in the heart of the city – will now, within the next year, be a vibrant place in the city.”
There is no shortage of local events and entertainment activities for residents to enjoy. The city boasts a lively arts community, with a number of loft and studio spaces available. Fond du Lac is proud to have the newly expanded Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts in its community. The facility provides access to world-class art, film and music. The community also has a Children’s Museum, the only one of its kind in the nation, focusing on, and providing education about, the diversity of the world’s cultures.
Other special events include Fondue Fest, a celebration of chocolate, cheese and community; Art on the Island; Taste of Fond du Lac; and the Sturgeon Stampede, an outdoor winter festival offering an assortment of activities and events. This year the Sturgeon Stampede plays host to the World Ice and Snow Sailing Championships (WISSA), bringing with it guests from around the world.
Fond du Lac enjoys the benefits of all four seasons, offering a variety of outdoor activities to suit any taste. Lakeside Park, located next to Lake Winnebago, offers over 400 acres of open, recreational space for the community to enjoy. A recent collaboration by community members, organizations and the private sector, the Fond du Lac Loop is a recreation trail for biking and hiking that circles around the city to increase access to points of interest in the community.
“Within an hour, any resident of Fond du Lac can go to a Green Bay Packer game, go sportfishing on Lake Michigan, attend a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game, attend a Milwaukee Bucks basketball game, or attend the University of Wisconsin football, basketball, hockey, any of the ‘Big 10’ sports and come back to Fond du Lac in the evening to enjoy a very nice meal at a local restaurant,” Reitemeier explains.
Recently, a partnership was formed with a local hotel to create a conference center, filling a gap in the city’s hospitality market, which is expected to be completed very soon! This facility will help Fond du Lac serve as a regional hub, providing an additional facility to serve growing local businesses and the community as a whole.
Moving forward, community leaders are rolling out Envision Fond du Lac, a community-wide strategic planning process that allows community members to take part directing the future of Fond du Lac. In deciding what kind of community it wants to be, it has reached out to consult residents to determine how to better realize its full potential while addressing the needs and priorities of its citizens.
With a cohesive vision for the future, Fond du Lac’s community leaders, from the public and private sector, enjoy a shared spirit and determination for a prosperous Fond du Lac. As Fond du Lac’s City Manager Joe Moore states, “It’s not just about where we can go, we want to be a place where people want to visit as well.”