Wisconsin is certainly not the largest state by population, but its St. Croix County is the fastest-growing of its seventy-two counties with a population of close to 87,000…
Separated by the St. Croix River, the county is located in the state’s northwest bordering on Minnesota. In fact, it is part of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington MN-WI Metropolitan Statistical Area, located to its west with a market reach of close to four million. There are sixteen counties within this statistical area – fourteen are in Minnesota and St. Croix and Pierce counties are in Wisconsin.
There are over 3100 counties in the United States. The geographic size, population and degree of urbanization of these counties will vary. However, there is a constant need for each to find answers to difficult questions, address unique challenges, and create an excellent quality of life. This is achieved within the essential framework of maintaining a competitive business environment – the mainstay of overall success.
Founded in 1849, St. Croix County’s seat is Hudson which is the county’s largest city and headquarters of St. Croix’s Economic Development Corporation (SCEDC). The corporation’s executive director for close to twenty years, Bill Rubin, knows his county well; he knows the pulse of his county and affirms there’s much to offer any business or industry, starting with an ideal location.
“Our primary connection, east and west – west into the greater Twin Cities metro area and east to Madison (state capital) and Chicago – would be Interstate 94,” he says. “It’s heavily traveled not only by our residents as commuters, but it’s heavily traveled with respect to freight, raw materials, finished goods and so on. So in many respects, I-94 is a little bit of a lifeline into the Twin Cities.”
There are a number of U.S. and state highways deeper in the county, including U.S. Highway 63, which runs north and south. All roadways have, “experienced widening, interchange construction, and revamping,” Rubin says. “Upgrades to the I-94, major interchanges [and] the St. Croix Crossing are all realities of sustained growth, that not only St. Croix County but west-central Wisconsin has experienced just historically over decades. It just reflects the pace of business, industry [and] residential commuters in our region.”
Connecting several communities are two railroad lines that serve the county, one of which is the Union Pacific, connecting the Twin Cities to Chicago. The other, the Canadian National from the east, also connects with other Minnesota rail lines. The county has access to New Richmond Regional Airport (St. Croix County) and Minneapolis-St. Paul airports, less than an hour away on I-94.
Strategic planning by the EDC, in conjunction with strong partnerships with public and private partners and various levels of government, better positions the county to anticipate economic development needs. Perhaps the most crucial is enabling an ‘open for business’ mindset to encourage business and industry through the many initiatives and incentives St. Croix offers.
There have been a number of reforms occurring at the state level coming out of Madison since early 2011. Rubin notes that one of the most effective reforms for business and industry has been a manufacturer and agricultural production tax credit. For those in manufacturing or agriculture, the normal corporate income tax rate is 7.9 percent. With incremental changes fully deployed for the 2016 filing of corporate returns in 2017, “manufacturers and ag production companies in Wisconsin will see that corporate rate go down from 7.9 to less than half a percent. The difference between those two rates will be 7.5 percent, which will be treated as a tax credit,” he says. “That is impactful if you’re a manufacturer or ag production company, not only in St. Croix County, not only in west-central Wisconsin, but across the state.”
And certainly, St. Croix County’s proximity to the Twin Cities is encouraging to investors as are the state’s lower industrial and personal property taxes, personal income tax, corporate income tax, and sales tax. “Many of these are recurring costs for not only businesses but also individuals … I think businesses today are challenged on many fronts … It is not uncommon for business and industry in Minnesota to put St. Croix County or west-central Wisconsin into play when they’re looking at expanding, consolidating [and] relocating operations,” he says. “I think, out of necessity, they’re forced to look at another state,” viewing Wisconsin and St. Croix County, “as a viable option.”
St. Croix County has a strong presence in the manufacturing sector, particularly plastic injection molding companies such as Vital Plastics, Phillips-Medisize (Medical), Nolato Contour, and SMC Ltd. “Our county has a growing manufacturing or business and industry base that provides employment opportunities … that manufacturing sector in our county is vitally important. A fair amount of our businesses are plastic injection molding companies … many of them are vendors for the medical technology sector. That is a huge operation in nearby Minnesota.”
He agrees that the county is one of the fastest growing in the state but, “there is still a dominant amount of agriculture in our county – cornfields, soy fields, [and] large scale dairy operations are located within the boundaries of St. Croix County.”
The two sectors of agriculture and manufacturing “are two primary industries that have significant impact on the comings and goings – the pulse, the heartbeat, and the pace of the county and the region.”
With eleven established industrial and business parks, St. Croix County continues to offer room for expansion, in most cases with additional acreage and buildings available. Rubin shares that occupancy rates will vary by region and location.
Many of the parks are owned by a village or a city. “If you’re a private sector developer, you likely want to get in and out of a project over a two to three-year period,” he explains. “In most cases, private developers would shy away from the long build-out period of a business or industrial park. That really becomes a responsibility, then, for a city or village to take on that function.” If these developers can demonstrate to taxpaying constituents, at the end of, say, a ten to fifteen year cycle that new businesses have been brought in creating jobs, “they would deem that then a success. Those parks are primarily owned and developed by the local unit of government.”
St. Croix County has several colleges and universities offering study in disciplines that serve the needs of both students and businesses. Rubin notes that the city of River Falls is split between St. Croix County to the north and Pierce County to its south, which is where the University of Wisconsin-River Falls is located, although the University’s Chancellor prefers to refer to the facility as the University of the St. Croix Valley.
The UW-System has universities in nearby Menomonie, Dunn County (UW-Stout), and in Eau Claire (UW-Eau Claire) to the east. St. Croix County works closely with these three universities to discern the educational and skills development programs required to address business and industry needs and challenges.
In discussions with the universities and chancellors, along with assistance from business and industry, it was deemed that, “We need to consider additional engineering opportunities,” he says. “UW- River Falls will now be offering programs in agricultural engineering … Each of the universities will host an engineering discipline program.”
He further stresses that if, “you get a student interested in a program as close as Stout, for say mechanical or manufacturing engineering, there’s a strong likelihood that that student will want to stay in the area. We believe that there are numerous career opportunities as they choose to stay in their respective field.”
St. Croix County is also home to Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in New Richmond and Chippewa Valley Technical College in River Falls (Pierce County portion), which offer degree programs and technical diplomas.
There are training programs provided for skilled trades through Fast Forward grants, a $15 million program that assists employers in providing training to the existing workforce to fill job specific requirements and enable advancement.
The Fast Forward program, “has been widely received and accepted by a number of businesses and industry across the state, in west-central Wisconsin and St. Croix County,” adds Rubin. “Fast Forward grants have been well received by large and small employers.” The program was initiated through the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) in 2013 and is administered through DWD’s new Office of Skills Development (OSD).
Forming part of the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota is the St. Croix River. Other rivers such as the Willow, Apple, and Kinnickinnic, for example, also deserve being protected in the face of growth. All offer a source of recreational activities such as hiking, fishing, boating, and camping among scenic vistas and pristine wilderness. So what St. Croix County and the EDC, “provides to business and industry is an attractive setting,” says Rubin. First and foremost, it’s important to, “protect that high quality of life, protect the streams and tributaries and that water resource.”
A unique feature that sets St. Croix County apart from the greater Twin Cities is that, “most of the communities that I serve have an identifiable downtown main street. With some of the Twin Cities suburbs you can’t say that,” says Rubin.
Part of the reason behind appealing downtowns is the county’s downtown façade loan fund offering zero-interest loans for improvements. Loans range from $5,000 to $30,000 with a fifteen-year repayment term.
“You can’t be successful with growth and so on if you go through a downtown and you don’t get a good impression,” he adds. “These zero-interest loans have been a very important part of that.”
Rubin hopes that what will be achieved is that, “at the end of a generation from now, if that’s our point of reference, are we viewed maybe as that shining star? Are we doing things right? Are we making it good for our constituents? Are we making it good for business and industry, for agriculture, for those farmers and so on, to grow and prosper? Given our very close proximity and inclusion in the Twin Cities metro, we provide that metro appeal to business, industry, and residents. We also provide those favorable business conditions.”