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What's so high tech about Rock County?

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, January 9, 2016

JANESVILLE–Few would expect Janesville to ditch its “Welcome to Wisconsin's Park Place” signs in favor of ones that read “Home of the High Tech,” but a local employment trend suggests it might not be such a bad marketing strategy.

According to the California-based economic research group Milken Institute, the city of Janesville and Rock County have been riding on a skyrocket to high-tech land for the last half-decade.

Ask 55-year-old Stephen Cardwell, a commercial print and web graphic artist who served in the U.S. Navy straight out of high school. He said he's held “30 jobs in 30 years” since he graduated high school and has worked all over the Midwest.

He finally found his niche in Janesville as art director of Foremost Media, an equally niche web development company.

The Madison resident commutes to Janesville every day because he says he wants a life apart from an urban job market that he says can be rife with “tech snobs” and neighborhoods full of $350,000 ranch homes. He came to Janesville in 2012.

“I know I want to finish my career here,” Cardwell said. “And I'm going to move here, too. For $150,000, you have a down-to-earth-life with down-to-earth people. That's what I was looking for.”

Rock County companies such as Foremost media are reasons why a nationally-recognized study has ranked the Janesville-Beloit area at the top of the stack for economic performance.

Milkin's new study, which began circulating late last year, listed Janesville-Beloit as the fourth behind the North Dakota cities of Fargo and Bismack and the college town of Ames, Iowa.

Milkin reports the bulk of the boost in Janesville-Beloit's business ranking came because of rapid increases in the last five years in high-tech and professional services, primarily by an explosion of hiring earlier this decade that totaled more than 400 new, high-tech jobs.

Foremost is a smaller firm, but its spike in growth is along the trend lines in Milkin's study. The firm had six people in 2012 and now has 23, including web developers, web sales associates and programmers, employees said.

Milkin's designation of high-tech and biotechnology jobs range from specialty and precision manufacturing to pharmaceutical and specialty pharmaceutical manufacturing, aerospace metals fabrication, along with a broad spectrum of web and Internet services.

The latter includes Foremost, which is one of the few companies regionally that specializes in designing apps designed specifically for manufacturers and industry. They handle everything from inventory to sales and customer orders.

“Industrial wireless apps are not the sexiest things in the world, and our home office isn't sexy,” company CEO Jon Ballard said. “But we're marketable, we're located right in between two major markets in Madison and Chicago, and we serve a utilitarian niche. We're happy here.”

Centrally located and happy, but perhaps a little crowded in their current office space, a 2,000 square-foot office on Excalibur Drive on the east side.

In May, the company is moving to downtown Janesville into a four-story, 24,000-square-foot former warehouse at 207 N. Academy St.

Ballard is partnering with Mark Robinson, who owns the brick warehouse they're calling “The Grey Goose.”

The city is footing a $500,000 portion of the warehouse revamp as part of a city tax increment financing package. The idea: repair and renovate a run-down property, help a company grown and repay the cost of doing so with the improved tax value of a property that will keep people working near downtown.

HIGH TECH OR HIGH PAY?

Bill Mears, broker for Janesville-based Coldwell Banker Commercial McGuire Mears, said he and his real estate partner Tom Lasse a few times over the last year found themselves riding a wave of industrial and commercial development deals along the Interstate 90/39 corridor like nothing they'd experienced in his career.

Much of it has been in high-tech manufacturing and services.

One such wave washed over the cornfields on the city's east side when steel fabrication and distribution giant A.M. Castle Metals eschewed a large warehouse building Lasse was developing, and wanted to show the company. During a courtesy ride in a charter bus Castle instead pointed at a cornfield off Enterprise drive and asked who owned it.

The company decided on the spot the cornfield was the right size.

It eventually took more negotiating than a single glance, but Castle didn't waste time jumping on the at least 60-to 90-person, 208,000-square-foot distribution hub and steel fabrication warehouse on the site.

Less than six months later, Castle has moved into its new Janesville digs. And the $16.50 starting hourly pay is a $3 leap above the going rate of most distribution warehouses in Janesville. A $2.5 million city incentive package again quickly moved through.

The only thing slow was the process Castle had in a two-day recruitment at the Rock County Job Center. 1000 people showed up, some of them after sneaking off the factory floors of their lower-paying  Prognosis on :

Ninoli Ratnatunga, an economist who authored the Milkin Institute study, said wage growth in recent months didn't factor into the big picture of the area's swelling paychecks, although earlier gains in wages registered here from 2012 to 2013 outpaced the national average by 7 percent.

Look for that average to continue to climb if a long-awaited project on the city's south side moves forward in the next calendar year.

SHINE Medical Technologies, a Monona-based upstart has been trying since 2010 to raise millions it needs to launch a radioactive medical isotope production facility near the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.

It's high tech meets high stakes. The group has $22 million so far in private funding, some from Rock County donors, and it's raised $50 million total, counting government funding and a $9 TIF deal from the city, according to federal filings.

That's pushed SHINE into the realm of being the first U.S. company to develop a plan and a facility on American soil that can produce the bone tissue-illuminating medical radioisotope molybdenum-99 using low-enriched uranium linear particle accelerators.

The facility could break ground in 2017, but a potential start date has floated around in the past, and it hinges largely on whether federal regulators give the project the go-ahead later this month or in early February, SHINE Vice President Katrina Pitas said.

SHINE would bring jobs with average salaries of $60,000 a year, Pitas said. It would require skilled mechanics with nuclear safety training, but a top reason why SHINE chose Janesville over two other Wisconsin cities is because SHINE believes the local job force is willing to learn new skills, Pitas said.

Blackhawk Technical College is poised to begin offering a nuclear safety course.

Nick Fitzgerald is a former insurance salesman transformed by the recession into a self-taught web marketing and search engine optimization acolyte for Foremost Media. He said he sees a new kind of resolve and building among others in what he believes is a growing circle in Rock County.

He thinks that high-tech jobs are starting to turn the tide in how the local workforce views itself. And it's changing.   

“The problem is not growth. It's people thinking we're good enough here to grow and support that growth," he said. "But that's already being redefined. And when it is, the bias that this town's had stacked against it from inside and outside, that you can only do one thing, that's going to change.

"It'll go away.”



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