Building strong regional economies is no easy task. It takes not only strategic goal setting and the implementation of tools to monitor success, but also diligence in collaboration and communication to address constantly evolving economic conditions.
The Rock County Economic Development Alliance works collaboratively with private and public stakeholders to strategically position Rock County, WI (i.e. the Janesville-Beloit MSA) for business development opportunities. This positioning involves leveraging and enhancing the area’s critical assets and systems without compromising the attractiveness, nor the efficiencies, of its business climate. The work of the Alliance, particularly since the Great Recession, has played a pivotal role in elevating the Rock County into a location in which people and businesses can live, as well as thrive.
According to a 2013 survey conducted by the National Association of Counties (NACo), 93 percent of counties participate in economic development initiatives. The study acknowledges that “counties of all sizes across the country are problem solvers, able to adjust their initiatives and programs to match local assets and needs.”
The Rock County Economic Development Alliance, established in 2001, is one such problem solver. For approximately fifteen years, the Alliance has been incrementally building and implementing the necessary framework to ensure that Rock County, Wisconsin is ready to go. The efforts are paying off, as nearly 100 private sector projects – accounting for over $1.8 billion dollars of new capital investment, seven million square feet of industrial / commercial and about 3,700 new jobs –have been announced and/or completed throughout the Janesville-Beloit MSA.
James R. Otterstein, the Alliance’s economic development manager, says that the Alliance is, “an informal network of Rock County economic development interests that is anchored by the Rock County Economic Development Agency.” The Alliance functions as a pool for “financial and technical resources” and as an information sharer, collaborator and brand marketer.
Otterstein shares that the Alliance was born out of necessity. He acknowledges that Rock County, “needed a more consistent, visible and singular voice to reach an external audience … because today’s business development environment is far too competitive, complex and fluid to have mixed messaging.”
It is toward this end that the Alliance operates: dedicated to addressing economic opportunities, as well as challenges, which organically surface within any given economy.
Situated in south-central Wisconsin along the Illinois border, Rock County (population 160,059) was created in 1836 and is one of Wisconsin’s largest counties. The county provides a mix of urban and rural landscapes and is anchored by the Rock River, a tributary of the mighty Mississippi. The City of Janesville is the county seat and is located on Interstates 39/90. The state capital, Madison, is forty miles to the north and Milwaukee is about 75 miles to the northeast.
The county has a diversified economy that includes advanced manufacturing, value-added agriculture, health care and technology related firms. Recognized and leading nameplates, ranging from either a consumer or an industry perspective, have sizable business operations throughout the Janesville-Beloit MSA.
All of this, combined with efficient transportation infrastructure, means that Rock County provides an ideal location to support any and all business and industry needs.
“The combined impacts of geography and our entire transportation network create a powerful, value-added proposition for companies that are seeking to optimize their just-in-time and supply chain connections – both domestically and internationally,” explains Otterstein. “As a matter of fact, there are a number of privately-held and publicly-traded firms that call Rock County home because these transportation assets enable them to reach their customers/markets in a safe, efficient and cost-effective manner.”
Rock County’s location gives it strategic access to over 125 cities with populations over 50,000, in seven states as well as the province of Ontario. Rock County is served by Interstate 39 and Interstate 90 and is the northern anchor for the I-39 Logistics Corridor. In addition, Interstate 43, as well as U.S. Highways 51 and 14, provide north/south and east/west connectivity.
Rock County businesses and residents have the luxury of leveraging five commercial airports that are located within less than a two and one-half hour drive. These offerings include: Dane County Regional Airport (NSN), General Mitchell International (MKE), and Chicago Rockford International (RFD), as well as Chicago’s O’Hare (ORD) and Midway (MDW) airports, respectively.
In addition, the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport (KJVL), located in Janesville, has three modern runways – with the longest reaching 7,300 feet – to support air charter, air cargo and corporate aviation. With a FAA tower and modern navigational aids, the airport is able to operate 24 x 7. A number of aviation related businesses, including a fixed-base operator, provide an array of onsite aeronautical services for pilots and aircraft owners.
The county is served by three railroads: the Union Pacific, Wisconsin & Southern and Canadian Pacific Railway. These connections supply area businesses with critical raw materials and then provide an economical means for shipping commodities and/or bulk goods from local firms to reach customers across the nation and/or overseas.
And Rock County is the western anchor of Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) #41, “which extends FTZ benefits out from the Port of Milwaukee,” adds Otterstein.
The Janesville-Beloit MSA is comprised of a mixture of urban and rural communities, with the majority of its residents and businesses tied to the cities. However, rural communities remain an important contributor to the economic landscape of the county.
Agriculture has remained a traditionally strong sector in Rock County, as any given year the following ag-related outputs rank among Wisconsin’s top producers: corn, soybeans, dry beans and peas; nursery and greenhouse products; specialty crops such as mint; and livestock. For example, MacFarlane Pheasants, “is one of the largest pheasant producers in the U.S. and it has an increasingly strong international market too,” says Otterstein. Meanwhile, the DeLong Company, “is a leading vertically integrated agribusiness,” located in Clinton, exports food grains primarily to the Pacific Rim and Cargill, one of the nation’s largest privately held firms, has an animal food blending operation in Milton.
Other food processing firms in the county include Frito-Lay, Diamond Foods, Hormel, IPMF and Seneca Foods. In addition to these firms that are directly engaged in the actual processing of food related products, there are businesses such as Kerry Ingredients & Flavours, which has their Americas Regional Headquarters in Beloit “that provide value-added ingredients and research to these producers to ensure that specific taste, texture, color and/or nutritional thresholds are met.”
Firms such DuPont and United Ethanol fall into this value-added food supplier category too, as they create components and/or blended compounds that service various food and non-food industries. The same cross-industry pollination holds true for Air Products, Evonik and Linde supply – as these businesses produce chemical applications that support a range of industry sectors.
Products used within the construction, defense, greenhouse, power control / generation and/or transportation related industries have a strong Rock County presence, as well. Firms such as Charter NEX Films, Gallina, Green-tech, GOEX, Prent and Tigre-ADS are standard names within the plastics industry. Meanwhile, corrugated and/or paper related applications have solid supply chain connections to businesses that include: Beloit Box Board, Pratt Industries, Valmet, Western Container and WestRock.
If there are propulsion, movement or emission controls / sensing, or energy storage / delivery and generation functions, that’s where firms such as ANGI Energy Systems, Baker Manufacturing, Cummins, Fairbanks Morse, Miniature Precision Components, Morgan Corp., Regal, SSI Technologies, United Alloy and Universal AET enter the equation.
For those operations that support a regional or national retail appetite, as well as provide just-in-time deliveries to key wholesale connections, then any number of the following Rock County firms have a strong likelihood of being referenced in that conversation: ABC Supply, Blain Supply, Dollar General (opening 2016/2017), Grainger, LeMan’s, Lowe’s, Save-A-Lot, Serta, Simmons and Staples.
Critical medical diagnostics and tracers that are manufactured using isotopes will soon be produced in the Janesville-Beloit MSA, as well. NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes and SHINE Medical Technologies, which are projected to represent two of the three domestic producers of molybdenum (Mo-99), are projected to be fully operational 2018-2019. With the support of the federal government and strategic private sector partners such as GE Healthcare, Rock County is positioned to eventually becoming recognized as the nation’s isotope capital.
There are some sectors in which Otterstein would like to see more growth, such as financial and professional and business services. While growth in these sectors – fueled by firms such as AccuLynx, Comply365, Data Dimensions, FatWallet and SASid – is helping to boost the County’s Gross Domestic Product and income levels to unprecedented national rankings, “the goal is to continue growing the employment and diversity of these businesses.”
Although there are several interrelated attributes that impact the growth of these technology-intensive firms, the key is creating the right environment to attract / retain talent that supports these businesses. With access to over a dozen-plus institutions of higher learning that offer in-demand, two-and-four year programming, including the likes of Blackhawk Technical College’s Advanced Manufacturing Center, the region is recognized for its ability to generate a steady talent pool. Combined with pace-setting advanced placement and industry recognized certifications, the area’s K-12 school districts are actively contributing toward developing the workforce pipeline to meet employer needs.
In addition to leveraging these workforce development resources, Otterstein affirms that the Alliance has, “a host of other value-added services that distinguish our approach from the competition.”
For example, the majority of the build-to-suit land within Rock County is owned by local units of government. This ownership structure facilitates developer of choice, as well as enables the area to provide (independently) certified shovel-ready sites for about $1 per square foot. With over 425 acres out of a total of 725 acres classified as shovel-ready, the Janesville-Beloit MSA is able to assemble land sites that range in size from three acres to over 100-acres.
These build-to-suit sites include amenities such as interstate access / exposure, rail service, compatible land uses and completed archeological, environmental and geotechnical reports. Simply stated: nearly anything and everything attributed to the acreage within the Rock County’s business and industrial park portfolio has been researched, recorded vetted and mapped.
Anchored by aggressive local tax increment financing practices, the Alliance routinely packages up various forms of financial assistance (e.g. grants, loans, tax credits, etc.) to complement its collection of certified shovel-ready property. Realizing that time is money, the Alliance has hard-wired its development related systems and processes to achieve optimal speed-to-market outcomes. This accelerated framework enables the Alliance and its partners to usually issue permits or process other entitlement processes within thirty days.
The Alliance has a seasoned team and its bench of expertise is extremely deep. These attributes enable the Alliance to leverage a combination of tools and services to attract / retain as well as start-up value-added business. One of these tools is linked to the region’s quality of life.
Rock County’s unique geographic proximity, directly at the WI/IL Stateline where Interstates 39/90 and 43 converge, creates an appealing and affordable environment that would make one want to call this place home. For starters, it offers safe neighborhoods with extremely favorable housing pricing. Schools are strategically placed within the community, which negates the need for extended bus rides or carpooling for after-hours activities. The healthcare network, which leverages four local providers that have regional affiliations, offers acute and specialized care within a 15-minute drive time – equating to more time healing versus commuting.
In terms of recreational opportunities, there are thousands of acres dedicated toward public open space and parkland that offer trails to satisfy any number of active-to-passive recreational uses during the area’s four-season climate. The county is rich in history, cultural activities, festivals and semi-professional sporting events, as well. For those with a passion for an even higher level of exposure to these amenities, renowned offerings can be accessed in Chicago or Milwaukee within a two hour or less commute.
In essence, there is something for everyone to enjoy. And this is all accompanied by, “a casually paced lifestyle, without sacrificing the levels of sophistication and modernity that individuals and/or families expect or want.”
Speaking about the Rock County Economic Development Alliance’s role now and in the future, Otterstein concludes, “Our team approach specializes in creating value-added solutions, usually at a pace that is much quicker than the competition … we operate collaboratively and professionally.”