The Intersection of Livability and Opportunity

Oconto County, WI

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In the November 2015 issue of Business in Focus, we spoke with Paul Ehrfurth, Oconto County Economic Development Corporation’s executive director. He talked of the area’s tourist and recreational opportunities, its proximity to Green Bay, Wisconsin and of the multiple economic efforts underway. Now, we are back with Mr. Ehrfurth to concentrate more on economic development and to follow up on some of the initiatives that were in place last November.
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In the last article, Paul spoke of a venture with a Canadian company that distributes high-end wood flooring and had a desire to build a plant in Oconto County. Chinese buyers were interested at that point, and Paul was to meet with a state representative to talk about how that project might take advantage of the EB-5 immigrant investor program, which entitles investors to obtain a U.S. visa.

The EB-5 program never materialized as the original project went into bankruptcy, and strategies were being looked at to work around the bankruptcy and find other buyers. That company has been successfully reopened under new ownership with Canadian investors and is now called Northern Lights Hardwood LLC. It ended up being a great success for the small communities of Suring and Gilett.

“We had extensive conversations with the Canadian partners that ended up purchasing the business, and so that company has opened up under a new name, and I expect that employment at that location could tap out at fifty to seventy-five people. We see this as a total victory.” It is an especially big success for a rural county.

Northeast Wisconsin’s development organization New North had launched Global New North, when last we spoke, to promote export opportunities and create investment and new jobs in the region. According to Paul, the venture has been progressing nicely. “That’s working out just fine. They have also launched supply chain management software and are currently in the process of registering Wisconsin companies into various sectors, including wooden forest products.” In conjunction with that initiative, Oconto recently represented the Grow North region of Wisconsin at a logging exposition to promote registering companies in the new supply chain software program.

Previously, Paul mentioned a feasibility study for a potential business incubator. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. A consultant by the name of Regional Economic Advisers of Madison, Wisconsin was retained, and a lengthy process ensued to find a viable entrepreneurial strategy for Oconto County.

“By the time you publish this article, that study will be totally completed. It will be presented to my board of directors on the thirteenth of October. It’s funny how directions of these things take on a life of their own.”

When Paul originally retained a consultant, his thinking revolved around an incubator or maker space. This is still not outside the realm of possibility, but sixty interviews of stakeholders, business owners and educators were performed throughout the county, and the study produced a need for a different priority.

Talent development and workforce development was at the top of this list. The need for a capable workforce is something for which all companies clamour. This was followed by entrepreneurial development and the third item is succession planning. Oconto has a number of successful, profitable companies that may or may not have succession plans.

“I could name several off the top of my head, but we also have, in the northern part of the county, a lot of lakes and recreational property, so a lot of folks have retired to the northern parts of the county, after operating a successful business.”

The aim is to identify those companies in need of a succession plan. The county will strive to identify the core group of individuals who may or may not have an interest in assisting some of these companies. Entrepreneurial people will then be identified who might fit into a succession strategy for one of those particular companies.

“The way I describe it is, we have these folks that have moved up to the lake country. First year, they fixed up the cottage; second year, played a little golf and in the third year, they are pulling their hair out, trying to determine what they are going to do with themselves. We want to find these people, get them connected to the companies that we’ve identified, that needs some sort of succession planning. Take those two groups and identify entrepreneurial type individuals that would want to work in these environments.”

This will end up being a key strategy for Oconto County. Initiatives are included to further standard business growth and development, but the primary focus will be on workforce talent development and entrepreneurial development.

Paul reports that in his four and a half years as executive director, he has never seen the level of excitement and energy coming from educators and companies. These groups are very interested in forming an alliance and getting involved in curriculum development. Educators can then ensure that a better job is done from middle school and up in preparing students to enter the workforce and have the kind of skills that area companies need.

The education culture of the county needs to change. “One of the tools we may use in this workforce development, or account development priority, is the use of fabrication laboratories. Many school districts around Wisconsin are beginning to integrate a ‘Fab Lab,’ into their curriculum.”

Paul says that he is fascinated by this process. It is not just about having access to 3D printers and laser engravers and someone to teach those skills. What really matters is the evolution of the culture of education.

When Paul was at school, he saw education as very one dimensional. It was all about being told what to learn as opposed to the ‘Fab Lab,’ environment in which you are dealing with a team-oriented, self-directed process that develops young minds. It will show them how to function and operate in a team-oriented setting.

“If you have the equipment, but you don’t have the cultural change, you are really not doing the kinds of things at that facility that you could do if you embrace the cultural change. One of the school districts that I talked to told me that it took them years to modify the culture within schools in order to accommodate that process-oriented learning approach.”

It will end up being very detail-oriented. Completing the study is the first stage and should be finalized in October of 2016. The second phase, toward the end of the year and beyond, will be to build some commitment from stakeholders. It cannot just be the economic development corporation’s decision; it has to be widely accepted. Paul believes that with the discussions that have taken place on the talent development piece, this will become a reality.

“I am going to say that by the end of the year, we will have created the Oconto County Business education Alliance and have it comprised of maybe fifteen to twenty people in a combination of teachers, educators and companies. People are really wanting to do that.”

This educational cultural shift is directly related to the maker philosophy. This is also one of the components that the Oconto County Economic Development Corporation hopes to integrate. The creation of makers’ spaces will occur either in existing companies or in a purpose-built facility in which people can come together to make and learn. In turn, they should become more skilled at whatever they are building and develop that entrepreneurial spirit.

“I’m sure that it will be a component, moving down the line, that we will be developing a rural hub for makers’ space.”

The Oconto County Economic Development Corporation is looking for industry to complement existing businesses in line with its rural entrepreneurial strategy. The economic development corporation will be working hard to retain existing companies. What current companies need is a quality workforce, and over time, the hope is that this strategy of connecting schools and businesses will develop that, so that these companies will be able to access the labour force needed to be successful. “It’s as much of a workforce development strategy as it is a business retention strategy.”

November 22, 2017, 9:24 AM EST