With its historic downtown, striking parks, beautiful beaches and marinas and its incredible relics from famous shipwrecks, Manitowoc remains a true gem in Wisconsin’s crown. Its enchanted natural setting on Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Manitowoc River, local industries and rich history makes it ideal for tourists, new residents and businesses alike.
Manitowoc’s name is believed to be derived from the Anishinaabe word for ‘spirit-spawn’ or ‘spirit-wood’ and means ‘dwelling of the Great Spirit’. Many early industries centred on shipbuilding, particularly those vessels used for trading and fishing. The city was incorporated as a city in 1870.
Manitowoc’s proximity to Lake Michigan provides scenic riverside walking trails, shopping centres, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and condominium developments. It has many established and emerging businesses in a variety of sectors from metal fabrication, education and machinery manufacturing to food services, nursing, furniture and transportation. Notable employers include Holy Family Memorial medical center, the Manitowoc Public School District, Manitowoc Cranes, Lakeside Foods Inc. and Lakeshore Technical College. The area is well-positioned for expansion, and there are business parks for three of the communities in Manitowoc County: the cities of Manitowoc, Kiel and Two Rivers.
A number of organizations are focused on the future of the area, spearheaded by passionate individuals who want to see it thrive economically and socially while preserving and fostering its rich heritage. One of those groups is Progress Lakeshore, the economic development agency for Manitowoc County. Under the leadership of Executive Director Peter Wills, the team at Progress Lakeshore is dedicated to promoting the economy of Manitowoc County, through attracting, retaining and growing businesses in the area.
From attracting new businesses to new residents, Manitowoc truly has something to offer everyone. Manitowoc County is a “jewel on the shores of Lake Michigan in terms of beauty, lake access and small and mid-size city quality of life,” says Wills. “We are proud of the maritime history.” The area’s early shipbuilding led to it eventually becoming a manufacturer of large commercial vessels and then submarines in World War II. This rich history has developed the area’s economy today, and thirty-three percent of all employment and sales for the area come from manufacturing, “one of the highest concentrations of manufacturing in the country.”
Progress Lakeshore assists businesses through a number of methods, from grant programs that benefit economic development in the county and the lakeshore area, to coordinating with local municipal leaders, chambers, educational institutions and non-profit organizations. Additionally the agency assists entrepreneurs and small businesses in business planning and best practices in starting, operating and managing a small business.
The organization has developed a range of programs to support company workforce needs. These include a six-week summer boot camp for recent high school graduates, in partnership with Lakeshore Technical College. This program provides training to become a Certified Production Technician to fill openings at local manufacturing companies.
Peter Wills, Executive Director of Progress Lakeshore, brings considerable experience to the organization. He spent eighteen years working closely with business owners ranging from start-ups to Fortune 100 companies, assisting with financing, expansion and growth. He has been active in community work, volunteering for organizations, assisting start-ups and being involved in community redevelopment. To achieve long-term improvements in the area, he has brought business, community, political and education leaders together.
“I now combine those skills for economic improvement full time,” says Wills, whose staff is made up of him and two part-time employees: Melissa Franz and Laura Drida. His staff is supported by a strong board of directors and executive board. The majority of the board were initial founding members of the organization back in 2004, when it was known as the Economic Development Corporation of Manitowoc County.
“Progress Lakeshore was founded as a response to a major plant closing in the city of Manitowoc,” says Wills, adding that there was, “no full-time economic development agency in the county to respond to economic challenges.” The organization is supported through public and private investments from local cities and private companies.
As Executive Director of Progress Lakeshore, Wills’ and the organization’s responsibilities cover many areas. The group partners with local, state and federal programs to assist growing businesses in the area. Progress Lakeshore works closely with the local cities of Manitowoc, Two Rivers and Kiel and chambers of commerce as well as Lakeshore Technical College to help deliver the training needed for the local workforce.
As a close partner with Progress Lakeshore, Nicolas Sparacio, community development director for the City of Manitowoc, heads the department overseeing building inspection, planning and assessment in the city of 34,000. He joined the city of Manitowoc in 2014. He previously worked for the city of Green Bay’s planning department and had the opportunity to work on portions of its downtown mall site redevelopment – which became the Schreiber Foods Corporate Headquarters – the Military Avenue corridor plan and its Downtown Master Plan.
“Manitowoc has similar planning needs,” he says. “In Green Bay, I worked closely with the business improvement districts, handled various TIF [tax increment financing] requests and handled all aspects of plan commission and zoning items.” Sparacio has been involved in planning and community development for about sixteen years and has worked for three different county-level planning and zoning agencies.
“I bring a broad perspective to the City of Manitowoc,” he says. In addition to the divisions he oversees, Sparacio is also responsible for community and economic development in Manitowoc. “On the broad scale, my goal is to make Manitowoc a choice location for businesses of all sizes. I want to continue to leverage the strength of our manufacturing sector, but I believe it is also important to diversify our economic base by increasing employment in the medical and financial services sectors, as examples.”
Among the goals for the coming years are strengthening the downtown and waterfront, completion of the former Mirro plant demolition and redeveloping the former Lakeview Center mall site.
“These are key properties in the city of Manitowoc that will help turn the tide and momentum in a more positive direction for our community,” he says. “Ultimately, I want to see the city grow both in tax base and population. There’s no reason why Manitowoc cannot experience the same kind of revitalization and recovery that other northeastern Wisconsin communities are seeing.”
According to Sparacio, some of the key drivers in the County include “Highly skilled manufacturing – especially precision metal and plastic fabrication, like Manitowoc Company, Jagemann Stamping and Plating, Kaysun, Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry, and the like; medical providers like Forefront Dermatology (formerly Dermatology Associates of Wisconsin – keep an eye on this company for some great things in the future!) and Holy Family Memorial Hospital; the lakeshore, and a working, deepwater port. A small town quality of life with affordable living choices, trails, beaches, and plenty of outdoor recreation make the area highly attractive.”
Executive Director at The Chamber of Manitowoc County for the past eight years, Karen Szyman is a lifetime Wisconsin resident. Historically, Manitowoc County was home to industries including aluminum and fishing. “We are very manufacturing-based,” comments Szyman. “Having a nice manufacturing base means we have companies which can feed off of each other, so shipping costs are less, and logistics are there for buying things for pieces you are making. So that can be a very good thing. But we always like to diversify, too,” she says.
“I think we have a very good workforce, with especially good work ethics,” says Szyman. “Second, we have a very safe, strong community. We have a good education system across the county, which is important with what we do because there is so much collaboration, and we have great programs going on with our junior high schools and high schools – a lot of partnerships. And we have our natural environment; we have all four seasons, and it’s really beautiful here.”
A takeaway for those learning about Manitowoc County, according to Nic Sparacio is, “It’s a well-kept secret! But not for long. You can’t beat its mix of natural resources, affordable living choices, and abundant employment opportunities. Almost every employer I have talked with over the last seven months has either already been expanding its workforce or plans to do so in the coming year. We have low interest loans available for manufacturers and other businesses that want to invest in the area, a host of healthy Tax Increment districts, and an open door for growth.”
To learn more about Manitowoc County to visit, do business or live by the water, go to www.progresslakeshore.org. Contact Peter Wills at Progress Lakeshore 920-482-0540 or email 920-482-0540.