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Study: Walworth County lagging in economic development race

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Mike Heine
October 22, 2007
— Even though Walworth County is in a prime spot between four major metropolitan areas, the county is missing opportunities because it lacks a comprehensive economic development plan, a privately funded study says.

“While Walworth County is experiencing above-average growth in population, current economic indicators show that Walworth County’s economy is underperforming,” the study executive summary reads. “Key indicators such as per capita income and the number of school children receiving free or reduced lunch demonstrate significant problems that need to be addressed.”


The study, commissioned by Johnson Bank, Keefe Real Estate and Bliss Communications, which is parent company to The Janesville Gazette, says Walworth County can expect to fall behind economic trends unless it plans for growth.


To capitalize on opportunities, the county should establish relationships with Milwaukee and northern Illinois, where many of the people coming into the county are from, said Dr. David J. Ward, a consultant from NorthStar Economics and leader of the study.


“I think having some kind of a vision about where you’re all going is important,” he said. “Too much of planning today is about what you’re not going to do. That’s moderately helpful, but it doesn’t tell you what you should do.


“You don’t want to have this: foundries or whatever. That’s fine. But what do you want to have that is going to have high growth and good paying jobs?”


Fred Burkhardt, executive director of the Walworth County Economic Development Alliance, said part of the problem is Walworth County’s makeup of small to medium-sized communities and lack of communication between them.


“It’s sort of like if you don’t know where you’re going so any road will get you there. There is no consensus about what it wants to be, where it wants to go and how it wants to get there,” Burkhardt said of the county.


The alliance did not participate in the study but is positioned to lead development of a plan, according to the study. The work should be done with the smart growth technical advisory committee, which is coordinating the creation of smart growth land-use plans for every municipality.


“Clearly, it has got to be a hand-in-glove operation,” Burkhardt said. “It can’t be either or.”


Having plans in place is attractive to businesses and can lure them in, Ward said.


“You have to know where you’re going,” Ward said.


“The county is positioned as well as anybody to go looking for and attracting a range of high-end services businesses.”


STUDY RECOMMENDATIONS

1. Create a countywide economic development plan


2. Tap into the market potential associated with the historic connection between Walworth County and northern Illinois


3. Identify and support key industry clusters


4. Create an identity or brand for Walworth County


5. Leverage existing business assets and connections


6. Build on strong agriculture and food production base


7. Explore formation of an angel investing fund


8. Carefully plan second-home and primary residential developments


9. Provide adequate health care for aging population


10. Improve telecommunication and transportation infrastructure


WHAT’S NEXT

Gateway Technical College in Elkhorn will host a public presentation of the study’s findings at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday. Elected officials and business and community leaders are expected to attend.



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