The past few years have been quite the journey for the Oconto County Economic Development Corporation of Wisconsin. The organization has fine-tuned its plans for economic health, Fab Labs are starting to make an impact, and the feasibility study has produced some excellent information that is being used so effectively that other similar rural EDCs are taking notice. Once again, we had the privilege of speaking with Oconto County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Paul W. Ehrfurth.
The feasibility study took place a couple of years ago and has become a pivotal piece of knowledge for the EDC. Paul was originally hoping the feasibility study would indicate a need for a small business incubator.
“In a previous life, I spent many years in incubation and felt that might be something that could resonate here in Oconto County,” says Paul.
The Oconto County EDC held stakeholder interviews and set up focus groups and small group meetings designed to identify key economic development priorities for the county. Paul was surprised that the results did not favor business incubation.
After many interviews were conducted, two primary needs were uncovered. The first was talent development, as employers here are looking for and need new employees. The local school system must deliver the kinds of graduates who will be able to function in the workplace with local companies.
“The second priority was to assist entrepreneurs and small businesses. We have taken significant steps in both these areas to address those findings,” says Paul.
Oconto County has roughly 38,000 people and is rural in nature. It will not see a significant influx of new manufacturers as it is too close to the Green Bay Metropolitan area which draws larger firms. However, Oconto still has a significant base of employment in manufacturing with roughly twenty to thirty percent of its workforce is engaged in that sector.
As a rural community, the county does not see a lot of immigration, and there are a fair number of people leaving for greater employment opportunities, a reduction in births, and an ageing of the population. In a rural setting, the next five to fifteen years are vital, and workforce development through the schools must meet the needs of the area’s employers to retain the population.
“The training and talent development piece are critical to what we need to do going forward,” says Paul.
After the feasibility study was done, the EDC started the Oconto County Business and Educational Alliance. This group of individuals represents the educational, employment, and private sectors. The idea was to have the business and educational communities collaborate and talk about issues that need to be addressed. The EDC felt it was important to find a group of people that could bridge the two and represent both segments which the Business and Educational Alliance does.
“We have a group of people from both sectors working together and talking to each other about key issues, problems, and ways to address those problems. We started out over the past couple of years as a kind of information portal where we brought people together to talk about these issues,” says Paul.
There are a couple of companies that have been involved with the Oconto County Business & Education Alliance that have begun to develop workforce models that involve school-aged children in the workplace over the summer. Depending on the employer, students can be involved in an ongoing basis to get them working in company environments.
“In this way, they can start to see what career paths are going to be important for our companies, and hopefully, we will be able to involve them in those kinds of career paths. That has been a major push forward as a result of the feasibility study,” says Paul.
This is the direction that the EDC wants to take over the next few years. These models developed by its primary employers will be taken to other companies so they can emulate them in their workplaces.
The second key need is for assisting entrepreneurs and small businesses. The EDC was successful in procuring several state and federal grant programs to help bring a consultant on board. This consultant comes to Oconto County once a month from the Madison area and spends three to four days working with companies the EDC has developed.
Through this initiative, a level of service has been provided to as many as fifty small businesses. The EDC does not see all of them all the time, but there are several that it has met with ten to twelve times over the past few years, and they are not charged for that service.
“It’s a free service we provide. We refer to that as the Oconto County Business Innovation Development Network, and that has been very successful,” says Paul.
Through that network, it has helped these companies grow, expand, and get into new facilities over the past few years. The county succession plan is also integrated into his.
Fabrication Laboratories, known as Fab Labs, are publicly available workshops that make manufacturing technology and tools accessible to anyone. The Wabeno School District really became excited about the Fab Lab, and it has been a successful undertaking.
“Another interest has also been developed outside of the Fab Lab concept, in tech education development within some of the school districts here in Oconto County. We are seeing a host of successes,” says Paul.
In addition, a leadership program has been developed. In rural areas like Oconto County, chambers, non-profits, and other community groups always see the same two to three people participating in all these activities. The EDC thought it could optimize its Leadership Oconto County initiative, which is a curriculum-driven program that takes aspiring young people from local companies and puts them through a nine-month curriculum on various subjects.
These leaders would graduate after nine months’ participation in the program. The idea was to develop more people who have an interest in community involvement and in being leaders within their own companies.
“We started with eight students in the first year, and that number has jumped to sixteen this year. It’s extremely well received. I’m guessing we will have a substantial increase between the second and third years of the program,” says Paul.
Micro-lending initiatives are also part of the plan for spurring the economy. Oconto County EDC has operated revolving loan funds for several years on bigger projects. They were loans up to $200,000, but the EDC struggled to find companies that wanted to expand into the county and that would need that much money to create a substantial number of new jobs.
It is the EDC’s view that the demand was not here for larger projects, but for small, more manageable projects. It would help by working through issues and helping a start-up or an early-stage business.
“We started that in 2018 and are now up to twelve micro-loans. It has been so successful that Oconto County gave my organization an additional $50,000 to help fund the micro-loans fund which is now up to $100,000,” says Paul.
Roughly half of the micro-loans clients now come out of the Oconto County Business Innovation Development Program. Talent development is another crucial aspect of the program.
“This is a successful model that could be emulated in rural counties like ours. It’s been a great couple of years starting with the feasibility study and ending up where we are now. It puts us in a very advantageous position,” says Paul.
To enhance economic development in a county like Oconto it must first be understood that there will not be much new site development or big companies moving here. There will be small entrepreneurial ventures, and the Oconto County EDC has a well-rounded program to work with and nurture them.
Word-of-mouth has spread the news of what Oconto is achieving, and at least two counties outside the county have been in contact to find out more about what it is doing and how it is implementing these strategies. The Oconto County EDC is amenable to advising or working with other rural counties that want to do something along the same lines.
Another piece of the puzzle concerns the availability of broadband technology. “Being a rural county, there are areas where the internet is not sufficient. If we are talking about home-based businesses and telecommuting, we will need to ramp up our access to broadband, and we are working on that,” says Paul.
Two years ago, Oconto County received the largest broadband expansion in the history of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin and is now erecting seven fixed wireless towers in the northern part of the county. A meeting with its providers will talk about including an additional four towers in the same area.