Rural Opportunity

Monroe County Economic Development

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Monroe County, Wisconsin serves up an idyllic, rural lifestyle as well as business opportunity. Home to a long list of leading manufacturers, the county has perfected the knack of maintaining a laidback lifestyle while welcoming industry.
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“The quality of life is there just because we are in a rural setting,” says Economic Development Coordinator Steve Peterson. “It is a simpler life. It is safe; it is friendly. There is a real attraction when people come here, whether they are visiting or [moving here]. We are seeing people now who have moved away and are moving back because they missed the area.”

Small, family farms dot the countryside. “You’ll see many small farm businesses that belong to the large Amish community living within the county and are nestled amongst green countryside and meandering streams. “We have such beautiful landscape. Our scenery is second to none.” Fishing, hunting, canoeing, hiking, motorcycling, and biking along the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail, the first rails to trails conversion in the country which features three train tunnels on the ride.

The rural community has had remarkable success attracting—and retaining—major manufacturers. “We are seeing growth not only in our cities of Sparta and Tomah, but we are seeing a lot of economic growth in our villages as well,” Mr. Peterson shares. Many of these villages are home to just a handful of residents, making their massive, globally-recognized production plants stand out all the more.

Indeed, Monroe County is expected to achieve $100 million in growth investment in 2016 alone. “I think the strength of that is that about $80 million of that is in our villages—it is not in our two major communities. We have been very lucky in getting some of these companies to go into the rural areas and have real success.”

The entire county is coming together to encourage business development. “I am really impressed with the positive thinking and actions of city councils in both Sparta and Tomah and the village boards,” Mr. Peterson remarks. “I think our village boards are starting to understand economic development a little differently; they are seeing that they can be a destination for business to locate and grow. I think that wasn’t there a few years ago. I think they thought the bigger companies would go to the bigger cities. But now we are seeing the villages stepping up and becoming a really attractive place for business to go as well.”

Located in Southwest Wisconsin, Monroe County is centrally located to almost every major metropolitan area in the upper Midwest. With two interstates and multiple highways running through the county, industry can easily access markets near and far. “We are very well networked when it comes to transportation, so trucking and distribution of goods are a real strength for this county.” The community boasts several trucking companies, including a major one for Wal-Mart that is one of the largest employers in the county. Martin Trucking/Warehousing in Wilton has continually expanded over the past few years to meet the demand for cold storage warehousing and moving products for Organic Valley & Century Foods International.

The rural community is also home to many agricultural and dairy operations. This has led to a very strong food processing presence within the county, and expansions such as the large United Cooperative feed blending plant in Wilton. One of the largest local food processers is Organic Valley, an independent cooperative of organic farmers. “It is now a billion dollar company and a true leader in the industry. We are so lucky to have them.” The A-list company is located in a community of just 1,000 people—and has no intention of moving from its rural location. “They pride themselves with being somebody that will always stay with a small community,” Mr. Peterson explains. “They have been recruited by a number of larger communities—including in other states—to relocate but they feel a real loyalty to the small community.” Organic Valley has expanded in a wide variety of farm to table products and is continually expanding its markets globally.

Another local food manufacturer of health and nutritional products is Century Foods International, a one-stop shop for the manufacture and packaging of dairy proteins, nutritional products, and powder blends. A unit of Hormel Foods, the company has four manufacturing facilities with over 400 employees serving customers in more than 45 countries. In addition, twenty-seven area cranberry growers have formed the co-op CranGrow to process their fresh, locally grown cranberries, while Ocean Spray operates a 75,000 square foot processing plant in Monroe County that produces 31 million pounds of Sweetened Dried Cranberries (SDCs) and Concentrate annually. Pasture Pride Cheese is a cheese factory in Cashton that produces specialty cheeses from milk from Amish Farms in the area and is continually expanding its markets. And Foremost Farms USA Dairy Cooperative is yet another world-class food supplier. This Sparta-based milk receiving station serves as a balancing plant, condensing milk for the company’s cheese operations and or drying ingredients from whey, depending on customer demand.

Monroe County’s manufacturing industry is active across a remarkable variety of non-food sectors as well. “We have a lot of diverse and very loyal companies in our county,” Mr. Peterson points out. “They are very loyal supporters of our communities.”

Cardinal Glass Industries Inc. is a world leader in the development of residential glass for windows and doors. Northern Engraving designs and manufactures nameplates and trim for major companies such as Ford. “Northern Engraving is one of our heritage companies,” Mr. Peterson shares. “It has been around for a very long time and has a very loyal employment base.” Toro, based in Tomah, manufactures lawn mowers, landscape equipment and irrigation systems.

Mathews, one of the world’s leading bow manufacturers, operates its 140,000 square foot factory within the county. FAST (Fiberglass Animals Shapes and Trademarks) is a premier manufacturer of fiberglass statues, roadside attractions, themed water slides, and more. The company’s work is shipped from Monroe County to attractions all around the world. McPherson Guitars has long been a leading pioneer in acoustic guitar design and production.

Modular chiller manufacturer Multistack is one of the fastest growing companies of its kind in North America. Coveris High Performance Packaging produces award winning packaging and film. Meca Sportswear creates custom letter jackets and other sportswear items for high schools and colleges throughout America. Universal Sanitary Equipment Manufacturing Company (USEMCO) is a multi-generation sanitation equipment company that supplies city infrastructure needs all over the U.S., and Carlisle Sanitary Maintenance Products in Sparta is one of the top brush companies in the nation.

With the Mayo Clinic Health System, Gundersen Health System and Scenic Bluffs Community Health Centers, healthcare is another key industry in Monroe County—and it is about to expand dramatically. A sprawling new healthcare center will break ground in Tomah next year, creating new jobs and attracting more people to the area for care. Slated for completion in early 2018, the $72 million Tomah Memorial Hospital project will include a clinic, hospital complex, and wellness center. “It is going to be a real game changer for the south side of Tomah,” Mr. Peterson observes. “I am already [hearing] from businesses about potentially building near that campus so they can tap into that clientele that will be going to the health center.”

Tourism, of course, plays a significant role in the county’s economic success as well. With over 80,000 bicyclists from around the world each year on the bike trail, the Budweiser Dairyland Super National Tractor & Truck Pull in Tomah – which draws well over 100,000 people on a weekend – the Warrens Cranberry Festival, which sees more than 140,000 tourists in a three-day weekend, and numerous other well-regarded festivals, the county is enjoying strong growth in this sector.

Last but certainly not least is Fort McCoy. This 66,000 acre Army base is a total force training center. The largest employer in Monroe County, Fort McCoy is a strong part of the economic fabric of the county, along with offering employment to residents in many other counties as well.

With so many thriving industries, Monroe County boasts a low unemployment rate of just four percent. The only challenge is finding enough workers to fill all the jobs. “The workforce we have is hard working and loyal, but the numbers are just not there for the growth that we are seeing.” The community has rallied around the problem, creating multiple workforce development programs. Employers are launching innovative solutions such as providing daycare reimbursements in addition to more traditional recruitment activities. “I think every avenue that you can look at to try to find that employee is being looked at,” says Mr. Peterson.

The county has been singled out by both state and federal programs for its ongoing potential. Wisconsin’s Connect Community Program chose Monroe County as an innovative participant. The state program is designed to help local leaders start revitalization efforts in their downtowns and commercial districts by providing access to resources and networking opportunities. “Many communities around the state have become Connect Communities, but we are the first county to ever get that program. It allows me to work with the small villages that would never be able to qualify to be a Connect Community on their own. Now they can utilize the resources of the Connect Community program through a countywide program.”

Monroe County is also the first region in Wisconsin to be chosen for the USDA’s Stronger Economies Together (SET) program. SET helps communities or counties in rural America work together to develop and implement an economic development blueprint that strategically builds on the current and emerging economic strengths of their region. “We are in the planning phase,” Mr. Peterson says in regards to the program. “We are gathering data about the counties and the region—from demographics to median income to education to what kind of companies we have in our region. We are compiling all that information and then we will be finalizing a comprehensive plan in about six months for how we can strengthen our weaknesses, continue to move forward, and [promote] our county’s economic development growth.”

County leaders are extremely optimistic about that growth. “We are going to see another extensive growth in economic development,” Mr. Peterson predicts. “We have a 180 acre industrial park that is being completed in Sparta and we have the hospital project in Tomah. I see a lot of economic development growth happening in 2017, mirroring a lot of the success we had in 2016.”

September 23, 2017, 3:54 PM EDT

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