By David Eckmann, Ed.D, President/CEO of the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce
Do you remember living through the Great Recession earlier this decade and the impact it had throughout central Wisconsin?
Early in the recession, many companies across a variety of industry sectors tightened up, bolstered their resources and took a cautious approach to business. Businesses closed and many jobs were lost.
Perhaps the most impactful events in our economy during that time were those seen in the paper and door/window industry sectors. The announced closure of the Wausau Papers’ Brokaw Mill in December of 2011, followed the next month by the announced closure of Weathershield’s Peachtree Windows operation in Mosinee, rocked the region. In that short span of time, more than 1,000 manufacturing jobs in paper and door/window manufacturing were lost.
Today, the Wausau Papers brand no longer exists, the former Wausau Paper/SCA Corporate Headquarters sits empty in Kronenwetter and the Village of Brokaw has been absorbed into the Village of Maine.
The ripples from these mass layoffs and business closures had an impact on the lives of thousands of families, resulted in lost revenues for local governments and a loss of funding for public education. Small businesses continued to close with a diminished customer base to support them. I hold on to the memories of sharing tears with small business owners that lost everything. For some, the loss included a lifetime of work.
Since that time, the forces at work in the 21st Century global economy have taken hold. Technology, according to Thomas Friedmann, has flattened the earth allowing many more people to participate in economic expansion.
An example that we might all understand is the growth and position of online retailer Amazon. Amazon began in 1994 as an online bookseller and then transitioned to digital books, introducing the Kindle. In 2011, Amazon employed 30,000 people. In 2016, Amazon employed 180,000 people. In 2018, it was projected that Amazon would hold 49% market share of all online retail sales, moving far beyond its beginnings as a bookseller.
The internet of things (IOT) and automation are ingrained in large and small businesses throughout various sectors, especially in manufacturing. Artificial intelligence (AI) is at our doorstep. The world is changing rapidly and shows no mercy for the complacent or ill-prepared, including communities.
A question must be addressed as we move forward. Is the greater Wausau region, our community, prepared to compete against other communities throughout Wisconsin, the upper Midwest and the rest of the nation to attract and retain talented people? Is our community ready to develop and support innovative industries and foster the next generation disruptive entrepreneurs?
During the first six months of 2018, The Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce, in collaboration with diverse stakeholders from business, industry and government, set out to answer that very question.
Early in this process, it became very clear that the greater Wausau region does not have a unified strategic approach to economic development for the 21st Century. Attempts by organizations and communities are disconnected, lacking in alignment and without a strategic direction. This missing strategic direction is necessary to compete in a highly competitive economic environment.
At that point, it was determined our community had no plan in place to address the projected decades-long challenge of declining demographics, the protracted talent and workforce shortage, and the lack of disruptive, new industries that will bring forth the next generation of high-technology jobs.
In September of 2018, the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce, again in partnership with stakeholders, hired TIP Strategies out of Austin, Texas, to perform a comprehensive economic analysis of the greater Wausau region. This analysis has culminated in an economic development strategy around which our community’s stakeholders (business, industry, K-16 education, not-for-profit organizations and governments) can coalesce. The strategic economic development plan is centered on quantitative (numbers) and qualitative (narrative discussions and observations) data.
There is a distinction here that must be identified. That is, knowing through data collection (facts) what drives industry sectors today is important and will continue to be important to our region in the future. This data will be necessary to support the sustained growth of our existing industries and to possibly spin-off new disruptive businesses.
Since September, TIP strategies collected external economic data from federal, state and local sources and have fostered in-depth engagement (focus groups) with our business and industry sector leaders, municipalities, K-16 education, not-for-profit organizations, outdoor recreation entities, young professionals, utilities and critical infrastructure, like the Central Wisconsin Airport. Through media partnership and promotion, a comprehensive survey was presented to the public. Nearly 400 people responded to this survey on how they view the region. In the world of survey work, 400 responses are significant. The survey is one part of a comprehensive approach to better understand how we, the greater Wausau region, must begin to work together to build a community that can compete against others like us.
Last week, the Greater Wausau Economic Development Strategic plan was introduced by TIP Strategies. The plan provides community stakeholders with an array of strategic themes and initiatives which will allow us to tactically direct resources that provide short- and long-term impacts for our community. We no longer live in a time where we ‘hope things go our way.’ Communities like ours, all throughout Wisconsin and the country, are planning, gathering resources and executing economic development strategies. We, in the greater Wausau region must do the same, but do it even better.
The Greater Wausau Region Economic Development Strategic Plan outlines the following three goals:
GOAL 1: TALENT
Attract Skilled Workers and Talented Individuals.
Over the last decade, labor availability has risen to the forefront of corporate strategy and site location decisions. As a result, economic development organizations have recognized that the ability to attract and retain top-tier talent is a fundamental component of economic success.
GOAL 2: INNOVATIVE COMPANIES
Nurture, Grow, and Attract Technology-Enabled Companies.
Connecting Marathon County’s entrepreneurial companies with the innovation-focused assets in the region and throughout the state will be key to the region’s economic vitality. These efforts should leverage the region’s strengths in manufacturing and agriculture and capitalize on growth in industries like healthcare to support the needs of existing companies and attract new investment.
GOAL 3: PLACEMAKING
Develop Quality Places and Amenities to Attract and Retain the Best and Brightest.
Creating quality places is an essential ingredient for attracting/retaining talent and companies. Wausau has enviable advantages in this regard including a vibrant downtown, a wide range of recreational amenities, and a number of historic buildings. Protecting and enhancing these assets will serve both current and future residents. Maximizing the opportunities associated with the Wisconsin River is an important aspect of this goal.
Action steps towards accomplishing these goals are underway. In the coming months, community stakeholders will be engaged in building a talent recruitment – community website that will allow: municipalities throughout the greater Wausau region to present their community; post-secondary institutions and K12 school districts (public and private) to illustrate their areas of excellence and; arts, culture, events, and entertainment organizations to present their areas of focus.
The website is very important to the community, especially our region’s businesses. Employers, large and small, require this enhanced digital tool to help them recruit new talent to the area. And while it is intended to serve the region, the website will be positioned as an outward-facing marketing and promotion vehicle. The site will leverage digital marketing and social media to reach distinct audiences in the Midwest and nationwide.
Moving through spring and summer, more action steps will be taken to move the plan forward. The Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce will provide updates on its website, WausauChamber.com, so that members of the community can keep apprised of initiatives.
For more information on the Economic Development Strategic Plan, including the full version in pdf form, visit WausauChamber.com. The Economic Outlook program held on Thursday, March 14 included the unveiling of the plan. View the presentation in the video below.
By David Eckmann, Ed.D, President/CEO of the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce. Eckmann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 715-848-5946.
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