Door County is a narrow peninsula reaching out roughly seventy miles from the eastern edge of Wisconsin, separating Green Bay from Lake Michigan. This popular upper-Midwest vacation spot is known for its beautiful coastal landscapes. With three hundred miles of shoreline and countless beaches dotted with more lighthouses than any other county in the United States, thirty-four named islands, and dozens of unique communities, the county is a wonderful destination.
When the world changed in response to COVID-19 in 2020, the Door County Economic Development Organization (EDO) pivoted overnight to remotely work from home, but that did not slow down the team’s activity. In fact, the employees of the organization managed a heavier workload than usual, helping over 230 businesses directly during the pandemic.
To find resources, provide counseling, and offer whatever assistance possible, the economic development organization made over 89,000 telecommunications between March tenth and the end of July. “We were very busy for a small staff,” said Door County Economic Development Organization Executive Director Steve Jenkins. “Our first priority was assisting our existing businesses with tapping into resources to manage through the pandemic and resulting economic impact.”
He explained that, “We typically do one email blast to our constituents once a week, and we were averaging one email a day at that time with critical information on resources and on information that we had vetted to make sure it was true and accurate for our constituents so they knew what to do, where to go, and how to do it.” The EDO is now back in the office but operating much differently than usual.
The county has been relatively fortunate compared to other Wisconsin counties that have been more affected by the pandemic. “We have businesses that are telling us: to date, this is the best year they’ve ever had in their history, which is counterintuitive to what we’ve all been experiencing. I think part of that is we are a manufacturing center as well as a tourist destination,” said Jenkins.
Although most people would guess that hospitality is the largest contributor to the county’s gross domestic product, it is manufacturing that is the largest contributor to the county’s GDP. The manufacturing sector, based primarily in Sturgeon Bay, has continued to thrive as a result of the county’s ability to quickly adapt and put regulations in place that kept operations safe and productive during the prime period of the pandemic. Very few manufacturers had to lay off any employees.
To remind people of the vital impact that manufacturers have on the local economy, the county celebrates Manufacturing Day on October 2.
The tourism sector has also remained active. With cancelled trips abroad, many Americans have taken the opportunity to travel by car to destinations closer to home this summer, and Door County is an ideal vacation spot. The county has also seen a change in the demographic of its typical visitor, as much younger tourists than usual visit the area.
“We see public revenues at or slightly lower than the pre-pandemic period, so we think that we are going to come through this in pretty good shape economically, barring any other disasters that may happen,” said Jenkins.
Last September, Door County launched the website LIVEDoorCounty.org to focus on attracting a younger workforce to the area. “We are on a peninsula, so we are kind of geographically challenged in terms of commuting patterns. We are seeing the Live Door County website have an impact concerning the younger workforce, and we have a lot of inquiries now from young entrepreneurs that are interested in living and working out of Door County, particularly from the Chicago metro area,” Jenkins said.
The website exposed the county’s opportunities and amenities to a wider audience, and Door County has a lot to offer, including a multitude of year-round recreational opportunities that are quite attractive to the younger segment of the population. The economic development team is pleased to see that the Live Door County website is frequently used to make informed decisions about moving to the area.
Other workforce development initiatives have become more challenging, including the EDO’s effort to promote the manufacturing field to schools in the region. All five school districts within the county have taken different approaches to reopen, ranging from socially-distant classrooms to virtual learning. Some programs have been paused, but the Youth Entrepreneurship Program is moving forward in full swing, and employers and the school districts find it to be highly valuable.
The program matches young apprentices with local employers to raise awareness about the local career opportunities and has been such a success that DCEDC, in collaboration with Ahnapee Regional Youth Apprenticeship, is hiring a full-time program coordinator for Door County students. DCEDC wants to have placed 130 students in apprenticeship programs by the end of 2021.
In Door County, 68 percent of businesses have fewer than four employees. The economic development organization quickly discovered during the pandemic that the small business sector of the county needed support that it did not have. Going into 2021, DCEDC will roll out a program for its existing businesses of all sizes.
Recently, the EDO hired a new Director of Business Development whose responsibility will be focused on the current business sector. The goal is to provide educational opportunities and other resources that were revealed to be lacking throughout the pandemic.
Rather than recruiting new businesses from multiple sectors, Door County has narrowed its focus. The community was built on the maritime industry and plans to re-energize it over the coming year. “We are going to relook at the maritime sector and where we can grow that sector both in terms of manufacturing but also in terms of services to the maritime industry,” said Jenkins.
Tired of the term, ‘the new normal,’ he hopes that the nation’s economy will stabilize as it adapts to these different circumstances. “I truly believe this is going to be a two-to-three-year readjustment period, barring any additional explosions of the virus or other natural or manmade disasters.”
The county will continue to foster its businesses and encourage entrepreneurial endeavors. With remote work opportunities growing, the EDO will also be paying attention to opportunities that will permit working from home.
Communities across the country are assessing the future in the wake of such potential volatility and deciding where to put their efforts. Door County is emphasizing infrastructure by expanding broadband services and developing affordable housing units. The EDO is actively involved in these areas because they are necessary to grow the economy in the future. Affordable housing is needed to accommodate its year-round workforce as well as its seasonal workers.
The economic development organization will strive to make sure that each of its sectors has an opportunity to grow and prosper as the country moves forward with an unpredictable economy. These days, strategies and plans can be redirected in a single day and economic organizations must be vigilant and flexible enough to adapt to changing situations.
“You’ve got to be able to pick up on changes before they occur and be willing and able to shift gears to accommodate those changes,” Jenkins said. “I think there are challenges moving forward, but I also look at the future very optimistically, and I think it holds great opportunities. It’s just a matter of being focused on what those opportunities may look like and doing your best in collaboration with others in your community, as we do here to take advantage of the changes that are ahead of us.”
Certainly, the pandemic has changed much of the economic development organization’s approach to the future. But this has been a learning experience that will leave a lasting impact on the county.
“I think we have the best of all worlds here,” said Jenkins. “It’s a beautiful location, it’s a wonderful place to vacation, and we also have a very robust manufacturing sector and agriculture sector. We have a diverse economy as it relates to our county, and I think we’re fortunate.”