Imagine this scenario: After communicating with international clients, you take a break to stretch your legs and walk out to the water – and we are not talking about an office water cooler. We are envisioning crystal clear lake water, surrounded by pine forest where you take a soul-nourishing breath. Refreshed, you head back to your computer to continue developing a software program.
Totally fanciful? No, this could be your reality if you were living and working in Vilas County, Wisconsin.
Heavily forested Vilas County, in northeastern Wisconsin on the Michigan border, is blessed with water. Of its 874 square miles, 144 square miles of it is water. The lakes flow into the Deerskin, Manitowish, and Trout Rivers which, in turn, flow into Lake Superior on the north, the Chippewa River on the west, and the Wisconsin River on the east.
The area also contains the million-acre Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, making it a true paradise for kayaking and swimming, fishing, ice fishing, waterskiing, hiking, and bicycling, and ideal for ATV and snowmobile enthusiasts. In fact, the county seat of Eagle River is known as the snowmobile capital of the world, hosting worldwide snowmobile racing championships that attract between 15,000 and 20,000 spectators annually.
“Think of it as the Indy 500 of snowmobiling,” says Vilas County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) Chairman of the Board Jim Tuckwell.
With all this going for it, one might think that Vilas County’s main business is tourism. While it is true that tourism is important in the region and can triple the year-round population of approximately 21,430 people, we learned that there is a whole lot more going on in Vilas County, where the face of economic development is changing in a way not dreamed of before the advent of broadband technology.
We spoke with Tuckwell, the board’s Executive Director Bob Egan, and LDF Business Development Corporation Chief Operations Officer Randy Soulier, who also is on the VCEDC board with Tuckwell, to find out what is making the county so attractive to technology and information professionals and entrepreneurs.
“We don’t have rail systems here. We don’t have interstate highways, so we’re not geared to support heavy industry,” Tuckwell says. “But we do want to promote and support new business opportunities and because of broadband access, you can pursue a meaningful career and live in this beautiful place year-round and not just vacation here. It’s a place where you can have a Silicon Valley income while enjoying a north woods cost of living, and that’s what we’re promoting.”
Tuckwell himself is a prime example. “My wife and I grew up here and left for thirty-seven years,” he says. “But we came back twelve years ago, and I worked from my home office until I retired two years ago. My career was with the IBM Corporation, and on a daily basis, I talked with people all over the world who didn’t know where I was. We had friends come from Minneapolis to visit, and they marveled and said this is like being at a resort, because we live on a lake in the woods, and it’s peaceful, and eagles soar over our home, and at night, you can see a myriad of stars you can’t see when you live in the suburbs. And every morning, you take a deep breath and smell pine trees.”
“For the last five years, we have focused on broadband infrastructure, and a lot of the focus of our state government has been to get broadband grants approved and rolled out throughout our various townships,” adds Egan. “It’s a beautiful area to call home, and now, with the right technology, you have the ability to do anything for a living that you once would have had to relocate to an urban area to do. No one would even know that you live in a little town, because you’re conducting everything in a remote environment, and it’s truly phenomenal what you can do.”
Moreover, it can be done at much less expense, Tuckwell maintains, citing the cheaper office space of an entrepreneur who has opened a web development company. “In Wisconsin’s north woods, he can get office space at a fraction of the cost compared to Portland, Oregon where he and his wife spent three years in a business accelerator program.”
Web development is not the only new business taking advantage of the broadband and fiber optic infrastructure in the north woods. “The University of Wisconsin has a freshwater research center here and there’s a group of PhDs here year-round, and in the summer, they bring in undergrads and graduate students as well,” Tuckwell says. “The University of Notre Dame has an environmental research center in the region too, and just being established just over the county line is a tick-borne disease research center, and those are examples hidden away in the woods of Wisconsin. We have some extremely talented people doing some very important research, and you would never know that, but those are some of the careers that are available,” he says.
“We want to get the word out that we can support people who want to do business worldwide and we can do it much less expensively than can be done in a large center.” A classic example, he says, happened when Chicago-based corporate concierge firm Errand Solutions’ Chief Executive Officer Marsha McVicker, “who has a vacation home here, was considering locating a call center in Tampa, came to us. She asked, ‘What can you do for me? I need office space. I need high-speed internet. I need a quality workforce. I need financial investment, and I need it all in five weeks.’”
Tuckwell says Bob and the board went to work and were able to meet all the requirements including getting broadband and fiber infrastructure laid to the main street of Land O Lakes, making it possible for Errand Solution’s mobile app Luv Your Life Solution Center, to be functional. “That’s the kind of ‘we-can-make-it-happen’ attitude we have here.”
Moreover, through a partnership with the Nicolet Technical College, there is a quality workforce available. “They have a forward-thinking president, a progressive approach to skill-based learning, and a belief that whatever they do has to support job growth and have an increased economic impact on the area,” he says.
“We partner with them on an evening entrepreneurial training class where students learn what it takes to develop and run a small business,” Egan says. “Over seven years, we have graduated over one hundred students, and about one-third have taken that information and used it to start or improve a business.”
One successful example is that of a woman with a master’s degree and certification in treating autistic children. She had moved to the area and realized she needed to create a job for herself, so after taking the entrepreneurship training, she received angel funding and began Starlight Centers for Inclusion, an early intervention business to help autistic children. “She started as the sole proprietor three years ago, and now has opened a second location and has eight employees. She’s an example of how a highly-educated young person can have a thriving career here.”
“The odds of us attracting a business with four hundred employees is not high,” Tuckwell says, “so we are really focusing on small businesses, maybe another call center or software development company with five to twenty employees. The idea of building a few jobs at a time is what we’re all about. And there are opportunities for other small, environmentally-friendly, north woods kinds of businesses, like a canoe manufacturer or an outdoor gear business.”
The LDF Business Development Corporation, a revenue diversification corporation, is wholly owned by the Lac du Flambeau Tribe, which is one of the area’s major employers. Tuckwell calls the corporation “a model of phenomenal growth.”
“One of the more interesting developments in business on a reservation is the phrase ‘living or developing in two worlds.’ We’re taking inventory of where we came from in terms of tribal people,” Soulier explains. “Our (Chippewa) culture and traditions are very well protected, as is our language, which we teach to children from kindergarten to grade twelve and to anyone else who wants to learn.”
An important part of that culture and heritage is good stewardship of the waterways which are restocked by the tribal fish hatchery with over 200,000 fish per year, with over 415 million walleye restocked in the last thirty years.
“When gaming (casinos and bingo) started in the late eighties, it became an additional method for tribes to return money to the community through health and human services. Then in 2011, I, with the tribe’s business development director and several other tribal professionals, met to talk about a business development corporation model that is recognized in our tribal constitution as an economic development corporation, making it possible for us to develop any type of business outside of gaming,” he explains.
“When we started, we had only one employee, and now we have just over one hundred. Along with the construction company that is certified for federal contracting, we have retail centers and we can do online lending. If we didn’t have access to broadband, we couldn’t have e-commerce like we do, and it just continues to grow. Once you have access to the world in terms of high speed, it’s phenomenal how you can scale your growth in business,” says Soulier.
“Currently, we’re developing a workforce training center on eighty acres in the town of Lac de Flambeau that is designated as a business park, and the training center will be the first tenant. It’s funded by the Department of Commerce’s economic development authority and will give us a 20,000-square-foot Class A office, flex labs facility to house a call center, remote workers, and our corporate staff of sixteen that ranges from [human resources] to legal to accounting,” he explains.
“Having the training center readies the workforce for other jobs that can come in and provide a year-round living wage and more stable employment than what is provided by tourism. If someone wants to change direction from working in hospitality, they could come and get into medical billing, for example, or coding. And the center will serve the whole region, not just us here in Lac de Flambeau.”
He emphasizes that, “We can’t do it alone, and that is why we have partnerships with Vilas County EDC and we have relationships with people who live outside LDF boundaries. It’s a rising tide that raises all ships because nothing will succeed if we try to do it all by ourselves. We need relationships, and we need leverage, and that is how we work together to improve the region overall,” he shares.
“Everyone has a similar end game. We want to improve the economy, and we want improved housing for low and middle-income families. So, from a tribal perspective, it’s critical for us, that the people all around us, tribal and non-tribal, develop business in a healthy way. It has to fit together in a good balance. The reason we live here is because it’s beautiful. We don’t want to pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” says Soulier.
“We want to invite people to come up here and enjoy this beautiful land and water with us. We’re aligned with what Vilas County does and enjoy what we have and want to show we can operate in two worlds. We can live in the north woods of Wisconsin and do business with Hong Kong, and we want to continue with this vision.”