Where Economic Vitality Meets Quality of Life

Portage County, WI
Written by Jessica Ferlaino

Portage County is centrally located in Wisconsin and offers a unique value proposition to those who live in, work in, and visit the county. As a midsized community with the advantage of infrastructure, connectivity, service and amenities, Portage County is a place where economic vitality meets quality of life.
Growth, development and wellbeing in Portage County are driven by forward-thinking leadership and a commitment to finding balance between development and sustainability. Unlike many communities and economies across the country, Portage County wasn’t particularly hard hit by the economic recession in 2008, due in large part to the county’s diverse economy.

This diverse economic composition has provided the foundation for a stable economic environment in which entrepreneurship, innovation, investment and job growth can thrive. Todd Kuckkahn, Executive Director of the Portage County Business Council emphasized the county’s ability to withstand times of economic challenge.

“We have the service industry, we have manufacturing, we have agriculture; we have a pretty good breadth in our economy, so while the recession back in 2008-2009 certainly impacted the people who live here and our businesses, it wasn’t a major drain on the economy in general. We were able to come through that stronger than ever.”

The Portage County Business Council is at the forefront of growth and development activity in the county. The Council maintains a localized focus, engaging local businesses and stakeholders and building local networks. It also works in collaboration with regional and state organizations to promote growth and investment in Wisconsin.

“My first objective,” explained Kuckkahn, “if we can get a company to move to Wisconsin, then that helps all of us. If we can get them to move to central Wisconsin, all the better. If we can get a company to move to Portage County, then that’s excellent; we can all benefit from working together.” He noted, “Our primary mission is business retention and attraction and employee retention and attraction.”

Kuckkahn acknowledged that the Portage County Business Council “realized that while economic development is scientific and data-driven for site consultants and developers, it’s also subjective in the fact that the quality of life is important – what you have to offer the community outside of the labor shed.”

Since 1986, the Portage County Business Council has worked diligently to leverage the county’s many assets to encourage job creation and investment and to maximize the benefits of that growth for the greater wellbeing of the community. The Council engages stakeholders, garners feedback and maintains communication with its member businesses and local, regional and state organizations to promote growth while fostering innovation and entrepreneurship and facilitating the collaborative partnerships that are necessary for community and economic development.

Portage County enjoys direct access to Interstate 39 which runs north and south in the county, as well as proximity to U.S. Highways 29 & 10, which run east and west. As Kuckkahn said of the county’s central location and accessibility via highway transportation, “We’re at the crossroads of the interstate and we’re just a few miles from a major four lane road. “We also have rail in the community,” he added. “One of our major business parks runs right along the rail where there are spurs that can be run off the rail to different businesses depending on their needs. We also have a regional airport 20 minutes away between Wausau and Stevens Point that serves the whole state, the whole region. We also have a local airport in the city of Stevens Point.”

Portage County is located only 200 miles from Minneapolis, 100 miles from Madison, 100 miles from Green Bay and 250 miles from Chicago. Though Portage County has all the services and amenities one might need, this proximity to major metropolitan areas offers County residents the best of both worlds.

“What we have here is a big city ratcheted back a bit in terms of what we have to offer. We have a symphony orchestra in the city, we have a children’s museum, so again, we’re looking at those quality of life elements,” said Kuckkahn of the county seat, Stevens Point. “We have a 26-mile bicycle trail throughout the entire city; the Wisconsin River runs through our city; and we have a lot of lakes, so we have a lot of those amenities that the younger generation in particular might be looking for in terms of mobility and finding the right place to work.”

Indeed, Stevens Point and Portage County have something to offer for just about everyone. “You can ski here 12 months a year; sometimes you’re on water and sometimes you’re on snow, but you can ski here and bike here 12 months of the year. A lot of people bike to work in the wintertime, so I think the four seasons are really an advantage,” shared Kuckkahn.

Additionally, when looking at Portage County’s greatest assets, one must surely take stock of the number of industrial business parks that are located in the county. The county is home to four industrial business parks: Portage County Business Park, 420-acres with full logistical and infrastructural support, East Park Commerce Center, 760-acres making it the largest of its kind in Wisconsin, Pines Corporate Center and the Amherst Business Park.

“The East Park Commerce Center is a certified cite for business development,” Kuckkahn said. “It is intentionally not built out; in other words, there is no infrastructure, no roads, no gutter, because we want to have the flexibility, depending on the size of the firm, to fit their needs.”

Portage County also boasts a strong education system that supports workforce development initiatives and partners with the Portage County Business Council to meet the labor demands of the local economy. In fact, the Stevens Point Area Public School District is considered one of Wisconsin’s premier public school districts.

“We have a very good Pre-K through 16 school system,” said Kuckkahn. “We have both public and private options all the way through seniors in high school. We also have a two-year technical college (Mid-State) in town, and we have a four-year UW system college, UW Stevens Point, which is part of the whole UW system. And again, we are within driving distance of other technical colleges and four-year school opportunities.”

In addition to retail services, manufacturing, agriculture, food processing, healthcare, and education, Portage County is experiencing growth in the IT sector, while targeting growth in advanced manufacturing, aerospace, green and agricultural technologies. In terms of IT related employers, Portage County is home to Skyward and KiMobility Inc., both of which have invested in new facilities and are once again poised for growth and expansion. “One holds about 500 employees and the other holds about 150 and Skyward is actually looking to grow another building of the same size within the next five to ten years,” said Kuckkahn. “Our IT field is critical and our local employers are putting money into our university and technical college to help with the pipeline of talent.”

Kuckkahn cited other successful IT examples. “We’ve got another IT company out of Milwaukee wanting to expand here. They chose Stevens Point because they heard about our university here, our IT culture, as well as what we have in terms of quality of life. It’s different from Milwaukee so it gives their employees options as to where they want to live.”

Even agriculture has evolved to become highly IT based. Heartland Farms, a regional agri-business, employs multiple television monitors, drones, and technology that enables it to remotely monitor field conditions, such as moisture, to sustainably use resources like water, nutrients and pesticides. “They are looking at it from a scientific standpoint that really helps to protect our watershed and use less and be less invasive in terms of the resources they use,” explained Kuckkahn. “Agriculture and the government and the community are always working together to come up with the best solutions.”

The university is another major supporter of agriculture in Portage County. “Our community is very much focused on sustainability and the environment. At our university, we have our College of Natural Resources which is nationally recognized, if not internationally recognized,” said Kuckkahn.

One of the major initiatives undertaken by the Portage County Business Council is Leadership Portage County, an annual class dedicated to leadership development in the community. This year 23 members will be represented at Leadership Portage County. Member businesses and employees take part in leadership development workshops while learning about living, working and networking in Portage County. “It’s not really a supply chain in the true sense of the word, but as people communicate, talk and get to learn more about each other there may be some opportunities for them to work together.”

In fact, there are many new opportunities on the horizon in Portage County. A Panera Bread location is set to open at the end of October and the Cobblestone Hotel has broken ground, Portage County’s first downtown hotel. The university is also undergoing an expansion of its science building, set for completion next year. A housing and transit study is also being conducted to improve the quality of life, livability and community wellbeing in the county.

As Portage County has undergone significant growth, areas like the industrial business parks and their employees would be well served by expanded transit. Likewise, there is a need for mixed-use developments which Kuckkahn believes will better appeal to younger generations.

The quality of life in Portage County is not only attractive to its residents; it draws many tourists as well. With four seasons of fun as well as the arts, culture, and outdoor recreation, Portage County is a safe community the welcomes many visitors each year. In 2013, tourists spent $104.6 million in the county.

Moving forward, Portage County, with the help of the Portage County Business Council and its many partners, will continue to identify ways to improve the economic vitality and the community vibrancy that makes it an attractive place to live, work and visit.

As Kuckkahn concluded, “Long term, our goals are employee attraction, getting people here and making people aware that this is a great place to live and a great place to work. We need people across all sectors: customer service, retail, IT, hotel, accounting, construction – across the board. It’s not a crisis but it’s a long-term goal,” another way in which Portage County will proactively and sustainably grow in the future.



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