Good to Great: A Small Metropolitan Area Thrives in New Economy

Sheboygan County, WI
Written by Claire Suttles

Sheboygan County, Wisconsin knows how to get things done. Lauded for its innovation, cooperative spirit, and strong work ethic, the community has gone from success to success.
“People here aren’t afraid to grab the bull by the horns,” says Dane Checolinski, Director of the Sheboygan County Economic Development Corporation. The proof is in the statistics. “From August 2011 our job growth has been 7.3%, compared to the state average of 3.9%. We are growing very significantly. Over 1,000 jobs have been added annually over the past four years, adding over $700 Million in additional payroll.”

Teamwork has been key to success. “Businesses within the county work extremely well with each other.” Neighbors still know each other in Sheboygan County and many residents enjoy deep ties with their communities, which greatly impacts the way business is done. “One of our advantages – the reason our businesses work so well together – is that so many are family owned. They are third and fourth generation businesses.” Small businesses are balanced by a diversity of large organizations, such as Kohler Co., ACUITY Insurance, and Johnsonville Sausage, which also thrive in Sheboygan County.

Businesses of all sizes enjoy a significant advantage due to the local work ethic. “Our workers are passionate,” Mr. Checolinski remarks. “They take ownership, they take pride in their work. Once they find a job that they like they really tend to put their heart and soul into it.” In fact, the entire state has a ‘get-it-done’ reputation. “You always hear about Wisconsin leading the nation in work ethic. Our people get up and go to work everyday. We don’t suffer the turnover that companies endure elsewhere.”

One of Sheboygan County’s primary goals is to keep this enthusiastic workforce well trained and ready to go. “A lot of the cooperative efforts have been in education,” Mr. Checolinski says of the community’s public-private initiatives. A new program allows high school students to receive dual credit with local technical colleges, creating solid pathways toward a career in information technology, nursing, engineering, advanced manufacturing, hospitality, or culinary arts. “Kids can get college credits and get a real dose of what those careers are like.”

The Red Raider Manufacturing initiative will upgrade, expand, and modernize technology centers at North and South High Schools. A partnership between the Sheboygan Area School District (SASD) and the local business community, the $4.3 million initiative will produce a steady stream of skilled, certified workers for the advanced manufacturing sector. The new facilities will compliment Lakeshore Technical College’s state of the art Kohler Center for Manufacturing Excellence, which also gives students practical, hands-on experience with the industry’s latest machinery. The Red Raider program expands upon the success of a similar initiative launch by Plymouth Schools several years ago with their Science and Technology Center and now expanded into a Food Science and Agriculture Center.

High school graduates who want to advance their engineering knowledge after high school need look no further than University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan. “Our local community college, UW Sheboygan, was originally intended to be a two year feeder into the main system, but there is such a demand for mechanical and electrical engineers that they built an engineering [department],” Mr. Checolinski explains. The engineering program has been developed in part through cooperation with UW-Platteville’s renowned engineering school. “Now you can get a four year engineering degree here.”

A variety of industries thrive in Sheboygan County. Insurance companies, for instance, have long found success in the region. “Wisconsin itself is a very strong player in the insurance industry and one of the first states to really get into it,” Mr. Checolinski reports. “A lot of it has to be that Midwest mentality. We are very friendly and welcoming.”

Tourism is also big in Sheboygan County. Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, the community boasts gorgeous, windswept beaches that are ideal for golf courses and waterfront resorts. “The landscape is very interesting, and that topography has been utilized quite a bit. We have five of the top 100 public golf courses in the nation.” The 2015 PGA championship was played on these celebrated golf courses, and the county will host the 2020 Ryder Cup at Destination Kohler’s Whistling Straits.

Chicago is located just two and a half hours south of Sheboygan County, and the city provides a steady stream of tourists eager to relax on the scenic shores of Lake Michigan. Visitors also come from much further afield to enjoy a vacation, attend a conference, or catch some waves. In fact, the county’s freshwater surfing is celebrated around the globe, earning Sheboygan the nickname ‘Malibu of the Midwest.’ These waters are also ideal for sailing, and the county boasts an official United States Sailing Center – one of only four in the nation.

The county’s visitors – from surfers and sailors to conference goers and golfers – enjoy access to world-class hotels. For example, the historic American Club has earned a coveted Forbes five-star and AAA 5-diamond rating, while the Blue Harbor Resort and Conference Center boasts waterfront views as well as a spa, indoor water park, mini golf course, and much more.

While many industries thrive in Sheboygan County, manufacturing is big. Sheboygan County has the third highest concentration of manufacturing in the nation and food processing is the local star. “We are off the charts in food processing,” Mr. Checolinski reports. The industry has thrived in the region for decades, with dairy taking the lead. “We always had a very strong advantage in dairy.” After all, Wisconsin is known as America’s Dairyland – and Sheboygan County has always taken a primary role in the nation’s cheese industry. “There was a cheese exchange in Plymouth that set the national price of cheese until the 1950s.” That exchange eventually moved to Chicago, but the County’s cheese expertise remains. “Companies such as Sargento, Sartori, and Masters Gallery have been able to build on that success.”

Today, local food processers utilize the county’s innovative spirit and high tech resources to further their businesses. From high-speed packaging equipment to state-of-the-art cold storage facilities, “we have all the mechanisms in place for the food industry. This infrastructure continues to attract companies from around the world to Sheboygan County. “We have a huge amount of institutional and industry knowledge.” Local industry works together to make the most of this knowledge. “The operation managers from various plants get together and talk about how to do things better. There has been a lot of cross-pollination of ideas in the area.”

The state appreciates these businesses and actively encourages their success. For example, “Wisconsin food processors benefit from a significant break from the Wisconsin Income Tax.” Another industry advantage is the abundance of fresh water. “We are sitting on the fourth largest body of fresh water in the world. It is a huge strength that we undersell. You always hear Minnesota is ‘land of 10,000 lakes’, but Wisconsin has 14,000 lakes. We underplay the amount of fresh water that we have.”

Sheboygan County serves up plenty of lifestyle advantages alongside its business assets. “We have the total package. We have art and cultural amenities that you will not find in other towns our size; they are not even found in towns twice our size. We have a fabric here that is unlike most others. It truly is a remarkable place.”

The city of Sheboygan is “younger and more diverse than Wisconsin overall,” creating a vibrant and dynamic local vibe. The focus on food processing has cultivated a local foodie culture, while a series of park systems attracts outdoor enthusiasts. “We have over 30,000 acres of parkland,” Mr. Checolinski reports, and much of this parkland borders lakes and rivers. “Both the city and the county try to maintain access to the water. The County purchased some of the last 328 undeveloped acres bordering Lake Michigan to develop a wetland mitigation bank. This acreage will be restored to wetland status and be open to the public. The preservation of the Amsterdam Dunes property shows how development, land conservation and public access to the water can work hand in hand.”

The community is also known for its non-motorized trail system. After investing $20 million into of bike paths and lanes, Sheboygan County earned the designation of “Bicycle Friendly Community” by the League of American Bicyclists – one of only eight counties in the United States to earn the recognition, and the only one in Wisconsin. With so much to offer, it’s not surprising that Bloomberg Business Week named the community the best place to raise kids in the state and Readers Digest has recognized Sheboygan as ‘The Best Place to Raise a Family in the U.S.’

The community is working hard to maintain its success and ensure that businesses continue to thrive in the future. A number of new developments are underway: recent expansions to the county’s regional airport and a 15-year effort to restore the county’s rail lines will be completed this month. “Most people are ripping out freight rail; we are putting it back in,” Mr. Checolinski points out. Both projects will make it easier to ship goods and do business in Sheboygan County. In addition, President Barack Obama announced this year that an 875-square-mile area off the coast of Sheboygan County will be one of two new National Marine Sanctuaries. The federal designation will create an underwater park to protect historic shipwrecks, bringing even more opportunities to the county and helping to preserve one of its greatest assets.

From railroads and workforce training programs to high tech facilities and underwater parks, Sheboygan County is committed to creating the best community for businesses and residents. “We are going forward,” Mr. Checolinski summarizes. “It is really a proactive coordinated effort that through these projects and others have created inertia that is constantly moving our economy and quality of life forward.”



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