Will This Be the New Best Place for Business in the Midwest?

Sauk County Development Corporation
Written by Jessica Ferlaino

Sauk County, Wisconsin is a place where small-town charm and the beauty of nature and the outdoors meet to offer a character and way of life that’s a huge draw to residents and tourists alike.

Home to nearly 70,000 people, the area is rich in both natural endowments and untapped economic potential, which stakeholders like Sauk County Development Corporation (SCDC) are working hard to take advantage of. The commitment of the Sauk County Development Corporation is clear: to elevate and enrich the quality of life that people already have or may come to know and love in Sauk County.

A gem of the Midwest
What makes Sauk County truly exceptional are the natural landscapes and the leisure and recreation they afford. Located in what is called the Wisconsin Driftless Area, the land was untouched by the glaciers of the last ice age, leaving intact terrain and landscapes of sandstone formations and pristine wilderness.

“The waterways, the forests, the prairie lands, the uniqueness of us being in this driftless region where the glacier didn’t come—and didn’t retract—and we’re left with all these rock croppings and formations and rolling hills that absolutely aren’t traditional Midwest,” explains Executive Director of the SCDC, Thomas Cox.

Some of the greatest draws in the area are Devil’s Lake State Park, the Wisconsin Dells, and Lake Delton. The area also happens to be the waterpark capital of the world, which makes it a tourist destination for many—but there’s much more to the local economy that gives people a reason to stay.

Cox acknowledges the economic importance and impact of tourism but sees the county’s true strength in its economic diversity, which will support sustainability in the longer term. The goal is to sustain what is, while investing in what the region could be.

For Cox, the question is, “How do we act in a community-responsible way that focuses on how we can sustain what we have?” which in this case is a strong tourist base, agriculture, which includes the dairy sector for which Wisconsin is well known, and a diverse manufacturing base which could benefit greatly from further investments in workforce development and modernization.

Being itself, but better
While many communities are beginning to understand the negatives that come with unbridled growth—particularly the need for more sustainable forms of development—Sauk County is more concerned about sustaining what is and maintaining the quality of life it already enjoys, bolstered by the strength of a growing economy. The focus is on creating a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem for entrepreneurs, small businesses, and residents by offering the resources and support needed to maximize economic participation and strength.

For Cox, this begins with small businesses, which he sees as the economic pillar on which the unique lifestyle of Sauk County depends. “To me, they are the de facto quality of life. When we talk about going and doing things we enjoy, it’s grabbing a coffee, getting a massage, going out for a glass of wine or a cocktail, or to the cinema.”

It doesn’t stop there, of course. Understanding the economic foundation of the area means grasping the longstanding importance of traditional industries like agriculture and manufacturing. Cox wants to see these sectors uplifted and modernized to everyone’s advantage.

“Where I would like to see us grow is in the mix of the new with the traditional. How do we take agriculture and make it into an AI Agri-business driven industry?” he says. “We’re going to need to eat, we’re going to need to have these products; how do we do that in a way where we make sure that [producers and processors] have the very best of what’s coming down the pipe in terms of technology and support?”

He notes that the same issues exist with regard to manufacturing. “How are we going to enable our manufacturers to do the same or do more with the same resources that we have now? How do we get one and a half times’ extra productivity from each person without making them work an additional 20 hours a week? We have to integrate the technologies and the learning that we see in large companies.”

Manufacturing isn’t the dark and dangerous industry it used to be, which can largely be attributed to technological advancement. The same can be said for agriculture in the 21st century, and this technological advancement will be the catalyst for both sectors in the future.

Cox hopes to maintain and grow these businesses through the provision of “the right knowledge, at the right time, to the right people. And if we can’t provide them with the right financing at the right time for them, then we lose them—we lose our quality of life, our education, our healthcare, and our workforce—so it all ties together.”

Serving the community
Much of the focus in Sauk County is on maintaining the level of service its residents already enjoy, and health care and education are two services of which Sauk County is particularly proud and works hard to preserve. Sauk County is home to branches of Madison Area Technical College and the Wisconsin Universities System, as well as three health care systems, in addition to proximity to Madison and its many amenities. These institutions are major partners in community vitality as well as economic and workforce development.

With the help of Madison Area Technical College, the SCDC recently hosted an English as a Second Language (ESL) training session that was attended by 90 people hoping to improve their language skills and participate more fully in the economy, better meeting the needs of local businesses who require new talent to get ahead.

SCDC offers many programs, training courses, mentorships, and opportunities to collaborate and grow, but one of the most important things it does is listen intently to the needs of the local business community and address those needs through the provision of resources and support. “We lean on our traditional economic practices—business retention and expansion. Most of that is being out and having relationships with the community and understanding their needs,” Cox says.

Sauk County Development Corporation also relies on and values its partners, which include local and regional workforce development and economic development organizations, local chambers of commerce, as well as the Ho-Chunk Nation, whose traditional territory includes Sauk County.

“The Ho-Chunk Nation really wants to reach out to the community, and we are a springboard to allow them to jump into different types of things. These types of partnerships open up networks that we haven’t previously had and so the main goal for us is to foster more community growth,” Cox explains.

Collaborative success
Economic development is most effective when organizations aren’t siloed but work together toward a common interest or goal. With this in mind, Sauk County Development Corporation is creating a collaborative environment in which relationships and business ventures can thrive. By focusing on the county’s strengths, which include its endless natural resources and endowments, the unique character and quality of life each one of its communities offers, and a rich and diverse economic foundation, the belief is that the economic ecosystem will develop sustainably and be a model for growth.

“I want to make Sauk County the best place to do business in the Midwest,” says Cox—a goal that he says the team at SCDC will work tirelessly to achieve. “We’re always striving to do better. I don’t know if being the best place to do business is a goal we can achieve, but it’s one that we can always work toward.”

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