Van Den Bosch credited with rescuing the Walworth County Economic Development Alliance

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Stan Milam
Monday, July 9, 2012

— Despite having no experience in leading an economic development organization, Mike Van Den Bosch is credited with rescuing the Walworth County Economic Development Alliance in just two years.

While still a senior majoring in general business at UW-Whitewater in 2008, Van Den Bosch was hired as an intern at WCEDA. Upon graduation, he was promoted to director of business development and was named executive director in October 2010.

"On the one hand, I had no experience other than my duties at WCEDA," Van Den Bosch said during an interview in his office in Elkhorn. "You can imagine that the board could have had some reservations."

But the WCEDA board decided to go with Van Den Bosch based on his familiarity with the organization and his youthful energy. Board members and community leaders agree the right decision was made.

Since Van Den Bosch has been WCEDA executive director, the organization has climbed out of debt and resolved a sensitive tax issue. Membership has grown from 50 businesses to 83, and businesses are expanding in Walworth County.

"Our emphasis is on retaining our businesses and industry and expanding them," Van Den Bosch said. "We're not large enough to actively recruit from out of our area, however when someone calls we're all over it."

When Van Den Bosch says we, he means me. He's a one-person (the one intern recently left) staff responsible for all organizational functions and activities.

Despite its size, WCEDA has grown and suc

ceeded under Van Den Bosch's leadership.

"Mike has done a great job," said Dave Bretl, the Walworth County administrator who is credited with forming the organization. "WCEDA is a bargain.

"Many counties have economic development as a department and spend a lot more than the $50,000 we do to support WCEDA," Bretl said. "Before WCEDA, I was in charge of economic development, and I had $3,000 in my budget for that."

Bretl, who also serves as the county's corporation counsel, said he was not comfortable trying to promote economic development on a shoestring.

"Response time is a must-do in the area of economic development," he said. "I was not comfortable with my response times.

"It's so competitive. If a community does not respond to an inquiry in a timely fashion, the prospective client simply moves on."

WCEDA was formed in 2005 with Fred Burkhardt hired as executive director. Burkhardt's leadership style led to controversy among WCEDA board members and members of the Walworth County Board.

WCEDA's annual funding from the county during Burkhardt's tenure was reduced from $100,000 to $70,000 and eventually to just $50,000. One year, the funding survived by a one-vote margin.

When Burkhardt resigned, Van Den Bosch was faced with a major rebuilding job.

"I had to restore confidence in the organization," he said. "The first job was to pay off back taxes and then balance the budget."

Once he got the fiscal house in order, Van Den Bosch redirected the organization's mission.

"We were kind of all over the place, so I asked the board to refocus our energies on making sure we serve our existing businesses and industries and help them stay in Walworth County and expand in Walworth County," Van Den Bosch said. "That was and remains our top priority."

A recent success for WCEDA, Van Den Bosch and Walworth County was the expansion of Birds Eye Foods in Darien. Van Den Bosch assisted Birds Eye in obtaining a $1.3 million forgivable loan to leverage a $39 million expansion project that created additional employment and tax revenue.

"Mike was very instrumental in helping us secure that loan," said Tom Timm, the senior director of Birds Eye operations in Darien. "Without his help, the process would not have progressed as rapidly and as smoothly."

Van Den Bosch and WCEDA have near unanimous support in Walworth County.

-- "Mike is doing a great job," said Richard Telfer, a member of the WCEDA board and the UW-Whitewater chancellor. "He's grown into that position and puts a lot of energy into making contacts on behalf of economic development in Walworth County."

-- "I'm comfortable putting the $50,000 for WCEDA into the next budget," said Walworth County Administrator Dave Bretl. "That's a statement on the great job Mike is doing."

-- "Mike is young; he listens, and he has a great deal of energy," said Robert Spitzer, a WCEDA board member since the organization was created. "The organization has been strengthened nicely under Mike. I give him an A-plus."

-- Rich Gruber, a relatively new member of the WCEDA board, said he credits Van Den Bosch with directing the organization through challenging times. "He's a breath of fresh air," said Gruber, a vice president of Mercy Health System. "He has great programming, and he has put the organization on sound financial footing."

WCEDA might have near universal support, but one Walworth County Board member has been a constant critic.

"To me, economic development is the efficient allocation of resources to produce value in services and products," said Dan Kilkenny. "I simply believe the private sector and individuals can do a much better job of that, not government."

Kilkenny also serves on the town board in Darien, where Birds Eye expanded with the help of WCEDA.

"Yes, WCEDA helped with the loan, and Birds Eye has expanded," Kilkenny said. "But that doesn't mean Birds Eye would not have expanded without that loan. I prefer to believe that industry expands because the market is ready for that expansion, and Birds Eye saw an opportunity to expand."

Van Den Bosch agrees that incentives alone won't necessarily close a deal.

"Companies know what they need and know where they want to operate," he said. "Incentives, however, are important because they can serve as a tiebreaker when everything else is equal."

With strong and near universal support from his board and critical county funding, Van Den Bosch said he will continue to follow his plan to actively support existing Walworth County businesses and industry and assist them in any way he can to ensure they remain and expand in Walworth County.

Last updated: 4:59 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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