Helping Rock County rebound

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010
— Widening Interstate 90/39 to six lanes between Beloit and Madison is vital in a plan to replace lost industry in the area, the president of Forward Janesville told a state task force Monday.

The slimming of the Interstate at the Wisconsin/Illinois border has a "psychological impact" on supply chain industries looking to relocate to the area, John Beckord said at a meeting of Wisconsin's Partnership For a Stronger Economy.

The I-90/39 project is not on the state's six-year plan that runs from 2008 to 2013 and is many years away, Joe Olson, director of DOT's southwest region, told the Gazette in January.

Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville, on Monday sent a letter to Frank Busalacchi, state Department of Transportation secretary, urging "quick action" on the proposed I-90/39 expansion.

Beckord and Sheridan were among state lawmakers and business leaders who gathered at Blackhawk Technical College on Monday to discuss economic development and job creation in Rock County, one of the areas in the state hardest hit by job loss and unemployment.

The forum was a meeting of Wisconsin's Partnership For a Stronger Economy, a state task force whose purpose is to strengthen the state's economy and prepare the workforce for current and future job markets.

Local members of the task force include Wisconsin Builders Association President Doug Scott and Rock Road owner Steve Kennedy.

At the meeting, local lawmakers and business groups told the task force about problems and plans specific to the Rock County area.

The closing of the General Motors plant grabbed headlines, but the area's economic turmoil goes beyond the auto industry meltdown, Beckord said.

In the last two years, the area has seen the closure of more than two dozen companies with 50 or more employees. Overall, the area has 11,000 unemployed people plus countless who are underemployed, he said.

"We've been hammered, but we haven't rolled up the streets," Beckord said.

Chet Gerlach, a lobbyist for the Tool, Die and Machining Association of Wisconsin, told task force members he'd like the state to spend more effort getting work contracts into the hands of workers who manufacture parts for larger manufacturers.

Gerlach said he doesn't care whether products manufactured by suppliers stay in the country or get shipped overseas.

"We just want the contracts to be able to produce the products. We'll take what walks in the door," he said.

The task force saw firsthand the number of area workers seeking retraining at community colleges like Blackhawk. The college's parking area Monday was a sea of vehicles; the only spots open were at the back of the lot, along County G.

"I don't know how many of you had to walk a mile to get in here, but I tell you, they're busting out at the seams," Sheridan told the task force.

Rep. Kim Hixson D-Whitewater, said retraining the workforce is a top priority for Rock County to thrive again.

He told the task force it's essential the state help businesses get the educational resources they need to form a qualified and skilled work force.

"We cannot just hope for a strong economy based on what we want it to be. We must be willing to embrace the changes that occur," Hixson said.

Last updated: 1:07 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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