Paul W. Ehrfurth, the executive director of the Oconto County Economic Development Corporation in Wisconsin, sees his county as unique, from its geography and its proximity to metropolitan areas, to its support of entrepreneurship and tourism. The Oconto County Economic Development Corporation (OCEDC) is moving to increase interest and investment in the county.
For almost 40 years, non-profit OCEDC has helped businesses begin, expand or relocate to Oconto County. Unlike elsewhere in Wisconsin, prospective companies can choose from an amazing array of business environments within the county.
“We are probably the longest in terms of length of any county in Wisconsin,” explains Mr. Ehrfurth. “There are three distinct geographical settings here.” The southernmost is contiguous to the Green Bay metropolitan statistical area and serves as a bedroom community to the city. Most of the communities in the southernmost townships are residential without many businesses or industry and the central part of the county is where a great deal of economic activity happens. There are small rural communities as well, the largest being the city of Oconto with a population of 5,000.
“The northern part of the county has a topographical setting which reminds me of places in Ontario where I go fishing: lots of woods, lakes and rivers, recreational opportunities, ATVing, and snowmobiling, in addition to silent sports,” shares Mr. Ehrfurth. “It’s a pretty diverse setting and allows a resident or business the opportunity to choose which of these settings are most appealing to that individual or business.”
This is a part of what makes the county unique and, as a result, tourism is one of its primary economic drivers, especially in the central and northern part of the county. The varied terrain offers OCEDC many opportunities to promote and enhance tourism and recreational opportunities.
Oconto County has a substantial industrial base, partly due to its proximity to Green Bay, and partly to its history in the forestry industry. A strong group of wood and forest products companies produce hardwood flooring and high-end laboratory and office furniture. The county’s strongest manufacturing sector is in food processing. Saputo Cheese is a significant employer and provides work for over 540 people.
“We have a lot of food manufacturing, but also have a large boat-building cluster,” says Mr. Ehrfurth. “We are home to Cruisers Yachts, which manufactures high-end pleasure craft. Northport Marine is also another boat-building company that manufactures high-end pontoons and fishing boats.”
Paul himself lives in Green Bay and makes the thirty-minute commute every day. He recognizes the convenience of the region’s location with respect to being close to both Marinette and Green Bay and not too far from Chicago or Milwaukee.
Being rural, the area lacks the big box stores such as Best Buy or Walmart, but has easy access. ”People in the county are either driving north to Marinette or south to Green Bay to access these stores. We are in a convenient location, right on a divided, four-lane U.S. Interstate 41 with 141 running right through our county and 41 from Green Bay has just been designated as an interstate highway system with better improvements. So, we are able to allow businesses quick access to a major transportation route that helps them get to commercial airports and helps them move products in and out.”
OCEDC is currently working with a Canadian company that distributes very high end wood flooring. This firm is seeking buyers for a wood flooring plant in Oconto County. Since the company does a lot of business in China, there is a high likelihood of Chinese buyers being interested, and Mr. Ehrfurth will be meeting soon with his state representative to talk about how that project might take advantage of the EB-5 immigrant investor program. The program means that, if individuals invest significant sums of money into a U.S. operation that creates jobs, then those investors can obtain a U.S. visa.
“That may not be attractive to someone living in Vancouver, but likely appealing to someone in mainland China, and that’s really when the bulk of these investments have occurred in terms of permitting Chinese investors to get visas to emigrate to the U.S.”
Mr. Ehrfurth is optimistic about opportunities with the Canadian company, and in recent conversations, he discovered that there are some prospects for investment on that potential $3 million project.
There are several companies in Oconto County that operate internationally. OCEDC is part of a non-profit, regional economic development and marketing organization called New North, Inc., which serves 18 counties across northeast Wisconsin. In partnership with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the State of Wisconsin, New North has launched a global export initiative called Global New North which is promoting export opportunities and creating investment and new jobs for small to medium-sized businesses throughout the region.
The corporation is making progress. There is an improvement in sales and property tax revenue and an increase in the number of building permits issued. Economic development in rural settings is vastly different than in urban areas. There are no 500 acre business parks to attract employers with three to four hundred positions and so its economic development strategy is based on encouraging and supporting smaller firms.
“I could wait forever for a 500 job employer to move to a rural county like mine, but that’s probably not going to happen. So, our solution is to strive to create a positive entrepreneurial climate so that we can grow our own successful growth companies. We have gone so far as to develop a comprehensive small business development strategy to implement countywide. An entrepreneurial advisory committee has also been created to look for fledgling entrepreneurs it can nurture and to focus on youth entrepreneurship.”
A good example of this is a local company called Roving Blue that has developed a sophisticated portable water filtration system. OCEDC has assisted the company with loans and has referred it to mentors and other resources needed. The company is just on the cusp of production and has already gleaned a great deal of interest from the U.S. military for its device.
“I have witnessed it myself – went to their home and took a five-gallon bucket, put some water in it from a koi pond that had other debris and dirt and dropped that little filter in there to pump it out. When I drank that water, it was perfect. They are going to explode one day, and we want to help them do that. This is what I believe to be our strongest and most likely to succeed economic development strategy revolves around.”
OCEDC implemented the entrepreneurial strategy to help Roving Blue in the latter part of 2013. This is just one of several companies with which it has worked that have found success. The strategy has to be the way of things going forward since Oconto County is not going to see major manufacturing plants any time soon. Growth is going to come from the small entrepreneur that it identifies and helps succeed.
OCEDC has recently received federal funding to develop a feasibility study for a business incubator, which is an important economic development tool in a rural county. The corporation is confident that over the next couple of years that it will end up with a facility at which it can bring together the service providers and other resources to help start-ups and early-stage companies grow and succeed.
“I worked for many years in the business incubation setting, and I can tell you unequivocally that the statistics are indisputable. One in three businesses fail annually and eighty percent over the first five years, but, in an incubation setting, eighty-seven percent of the companies that we incubate are either still in business, merged or sold to another company, and that’s a great measure of success.”
The biggest challenge OCEDC faces is the fact that it is rural, and a lot of the traditional economic development drivers that happen in larger cities are difficult in rural counties like Oconto County. Also, the region has a per capita income that is lower than the state average, making it difficult to find jobs that are going to pay higher wages.
Another complication occurs not just in this county, but in all of the north woods of Wisconsin and Michigan, since the United States Forest Service is not meeting its quota for timber sales and timber harvesting. So, the corporation is trying to get these agencies to adopt a real sustainable forest management practice. “If that was happening, there could be thousands of jobs created in the north woods of Wisconsin, and a lot of that would happen here.”