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Economic development in Walworth County focusing on retention and expansion

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STANLEY B. MILAM
June 17, 2012
— Traditionally, tourism has been the main economic force in Walworth County.

Lake Geneva, Fontana and Williams Bay have been Chicago's tourist destination for decades, pumping millions of dollars each year into the Walworth County economy.


While tourism remains strong in Walworth County, industrial development has emerged as a powerful economic engine.


Cooperation by the city of Whitewater, UW-Whitewater and the private sector has resulted in significant investment in the Whitewater Business Park led by Generac and Universal Electronics. The Innovation Center, the centerpiece of the Whitewater University Technology Park, is at 80 percent occupancy.


Meanwhile, businesses are growing along Interstate 43.


'Need skilled labor'

Provisur Technologies is an example of a Whitewater company growing despite transportation and staffing challenges.


"It would be a benefit to have direct access to an Interstate, but that has not been a detriment to our growth," plant manager Robin Hancock said. "A four-lane expansion of Highway 12 to Madison and Elkhorn would be a welcomed change for us."


Staffing, not transportation, is the company's biggest challenge in Whitewater, Hancock said.


"We are having difficulty finding skilled welders and fabricators," he said. "We were forced to look at a specialized welding school in Tulsa, Okla., a year ago when we needed welders. We would love to hire locally if we can."


A skilled workforce is essential to Provisur's growth, Hancock said.


"We have a prosperous and growing company that operates on a global basis," he said. "In the past five years, we have seen 200 percent growth with sales of $40 million. To continue that growth, we need skilled labor."


Gateway Technical College hears Hancock's concerns.


"We have worked with Provisur to address their needs," said Debbie Davidson, Gateway Technical College vice president of workforce and economic development.


"We have created boot camps which are intense 14-week, 40-hours-a-week classes in various skills, including welding," Davidson said. "We are in the process of modifying the welding program to include fabrication."


Gateway is joining the Walworth County Economic Development Alliance and the Walworth County Job Center for a July 26 conference to meet with representatives of Walworth County industries and plan programs to meet their needs.


'Easy access'

While Whitewater continues to grow economically, it lacks direct Interstate access. Three Walworth County communities—Delavan, Elkhorn and East Troy—benefit from their proximity to Interstate 43, which runs diagonally through the county.


"Location has a lot to do with economic development success," said Mike Van Den Bosch, Walworth County Economic Development Alliance executive director. "Whitewater enjoys a great relationship with the university and access to Highway 12. Most of the other development we see goes right along I-43."


In the Delavan-Darien area, two growing industries—Better by Design and Birds Eye—rely on I-43 for transportation of products in and out of their facilities.


"Easy access from our location in the Delavan Industrial Park to I-43 allows us to concentrate on other important needs, such as our work force," said Eric Wentz, president and owner of Better by Design in Delavan. "For example, we are centrally located to draw from an area where most of our employees live.


"We are located in the middle of an area where we can draw skilled and reliable employees," he said. "That's a big plus for us."


Better by Design makes automated systems to customers' specifications.


"We make stuff that makes stuff is the easiest way to describe what we do and what we make," Wendt said. "We have grown from a tiny company with six employees to a small company that employs 15. In that time since 2007, we have grown the business by 300 percent in terms of revenue."


Wendt has grown the company to near capacity and needs to expand. That's where Van Den Bosch and the economic development alliance can help.


"The alliance has been through some ups and downs, but with the help of our board we redefined our mission and decided to focus on helping the private sector grow and create jobs in Walworth County," said Van Den Bosch, who became executive director of the economic development alliance in October 2010 after serving as an intern since April 2008.


"We began to focus on retention and expansion in early 2011 and have had success in that area," he said. "In fact, we are currently working on projects that will not only see expansion of some of our existing companies, but we'll see some companies moving into Walworth County, as well."


Van Den Bosch could not share information on the projects in progress, but he said announcements are coming soon.


'Interstate is vital'

One newcomer to Walworth County that has finalized plans is Sweetener Supply, which will locate in an existing building in the Elkhorn Industrial Park on Proctor Drive.


Sweetener Supply manufactures food ingredients. The Elkhorn facility will manufacture starch products under the Ridgeland brand.


Joe Gardella, Sweetener Supply president and chief executive officer, said the plant expects to have 25 full-time positions within the first three years of operation. The city has approved building permits to remodel the building.


An example of the economic development alliance's help in retaining and expanding a Walworth County industry is the Birds Eye frozen food facility in the town of Darien. The plant recently completed a $39 million, 63,000-square-foot expansion that brought total space at the facility to 700,000 square feet and employment to 640.


"The Interstate is a major plus for us and a reason why we are where we are," said Tom Tim, senior director of operations for the Birds Eye plants in Darien and Waseca. "Our transportation system both in and out of the plant is mostly by truck, so the Interstate is vital to our operation."


Location is another plus for Birds Eye, Tim said.


"We are centrally located for the products we process and our employment base," he said. "It's a great location, and we have received great cooperation from the town board, the county and especially Mike at WCEDA."


The economic development alliance help Birds Eye secure a $1.3 million development block grant loan.


"Mike's assistance was instrumental in helping us through the regulatory process and ensuring that the entire process ran smoothly," Tim said.


The Darien Birds Eye plant produces the familiar Steamfresh vegetables seen in the frozen food section of grocery stores, Viola meals and other Birds Eye vegetables.


Van Den Bosch said the economic development alliance stands ready to help any business interested in expanding in Walworth County or anyone considering locating in the county.


When you get down to it, CEOs generally know where they want to locate," Van Den Bosch said. "We don't headhunt or aggressively recruit. But when someone expresses an interest, we go all out."


That effort also applies to existing companies looking for help to expand, Van Den Bosch said.


"We have adopted a pro-active approach to retention and expansion," he said. "We have establish a schedule of regular calls on our existing companies. We have found that by making that connection, we are better prepared to help."



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