Janesville36.7°

A step ahead: Online tools target new businesses

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Jim Leute
September 23, 2012

— When recruiting new businesses or helping existing companies expand, economic development officials want access to tools.

The tools often are financial, such as local tax increment finance districts or state tax credit incentives.

Rock County officials have added a tray to their toolbox and filled it with homemade tackle that doesn’t involve local or state government.

With the help of Rock County 5.0, the Rock County Development Alliance has developed a set of virtual tools it believes position it ahead of other Midwest economic development groups seeking the same prospects.

“We think we’ve put together a wonderful set of tools for businesses to use in evaluating a move to our area specifically, or to Wisconsin in general,” said Mary Willmer, co-chairwoman of Rock County 5.0. “We’re thrilled to have it available.”

James Otterstein, Rock County’s economic development director, outlined the characteristics of a hypothetical company considering Rock County for a relocation and consolidation of its operations.

The company would need about 150,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space in a new building or one that’s less than 10 years old. It will employ between 50 and 75 workers and pay them competitive local wages.

The company is looking for a community with a population base of about 100,000 that’s close enough to key customers and within 90 minutes of an international airport and within 30 minutes of institutions of higher learning.

“And, of course, they want an environment that’s business friendly,” Otterstein said.

These days, those parameters are weighed on websites, Otterstein said, and communities often are eliminated without ever knowing they were under consideration.

The Rock County Development Alliance is a coalition of local economic development interests and experts. With funding from Rock County 5.0, the alliance has been putting together a website that goes beyond the basic economic demographics of Rock County.

That all can be found at rockcountyalliance.com, but the site also includes tools that help prospects determine their needs, design and site buildings and calculate real-time tax and wage costs.

“These days, speed to market is huge, and it’s all about helping companies take advantage of market opportunities,” Otterstein said.

Online toolbox

Consider again Otterstein’s hypothetical prospect.

If it’s satisfied with the local demographics, the company can click on a list of available properties or, if it wants to build new, any of the three industrial parks in Rock County that are Wisconsin’s only third-party-certified, shovel-ready industrial/distribution sites.

In 2010, Rock County 5.0 paid a site selection consultant to certify the 224-acre Highway 11 Business Park on Janesville’s south side and the 230-acre Gateway Business Park in Beloit as shovel-ready. Edgerton’s Business Park added 42 acres to the program earlier this year.

Consultants reviewed more than 200 variables at each site and compiled a report that addresses ownership, property, transportation, utility, environmental and community issues. The idea is to eliminate barriers that might dissuade a company from locating in any of the three sites.

Because Rock County 5.0 has done the certification work, prospects could start construction in as few as 30 days and avoid a six- to eight-month delay while they pay someone else to certify the property.

Having found a site in Rock County, the prospect can turn to an online portfolio of six building designs that meet building codes and the requirements of the county’s shovel-ready parks. The online portfolio was developed and underwritten by Angus Young Associates, a Janesville architectural firm.

The buildings in the build-to-suit portfolio range in size from 59,000 square feet to 700,000 square feet. Each includes a profile with detailed specifications, floor plans, a site plan and renderings. Prospects would not need to pick one of the six buildings, but they would at least have an initial idea of what could be done.

The newest addition to the site is a cost calculator developed and underwritten by Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, a full-service accounting and consulting firm with an office in Janesville.

“The tax calculator is an online costing tool that lets users input very specific answers to questions to help them pinpoint what their local and state tax implications will be,” Otterstein said.

A second component allows prospects to input staffing levels and determine unemployment, workers’ compensation and other costs based on the alliance’s local wage and benefit survey.

“They can print, save and send that information to whomever to see what their true costs will be on an annualized basis,” Ottertsein said.

Favorable reactions

The idea behind the online tools is to give prospects a wealth of information and eliminate barriers that might send them elsewhere. Otterstein said the help from Angus Young and Baker Tilly allowed Rock County 5.0 to put together the virtual toolbox at a fraction of the cost of private-sector software.

“To our knowledge, there is only a very small group of economic development groups in the country that is doing this at this level,” he said. “What we have is a series of building blocks that hinge together to provide structure and connectivity.

“The amount of data available in one or two clicks is amazing.”

While Rock County is enjoying an economic recovery of sorts, it’s been slower than most would prefer.

And while Otterstein and others can’t point to a specific relocation or expansion that’s directly attributable to the website’s tools, they are confident Rock County is well positioned and that success stories are only a matter of time.

“So far, the overall reaction to the site has been, ‘Wow, that’s impressive,’” Otterstein said. “When we do meet face-to-face, prospects say they are extremely impressed with the substance of the tools to make real-time decisions.”



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