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May 19, 2019

Jamie Taylor/river News

Grow North executive director Brittany Beyer and Oneida County Economic Development executive director Stacey Johnson participated in a HireUp program Friday at Nicolet College in Rhinelander.
Jamie Taylor/river News

Grow North executive director Brittany Beyer and Oneida County Economic Development executive director Stacey Johnson participated in a HireUp program Friday at Nicolet College in Rhinelander.
5/7/2019 7:30:00 AM
Local economic development leaders address challenging start to 2019
Johnson, Beyer still enthusiastic about region's economic future

Jamie Taylor
River News Reporter

Over the last year, Rhinelander and northern Wisconsin in general have taken some economic hits as major employers Doctors Foster and Smith (DFS) and Shopko both shuttered their operations, putting hundreds of people out of work in a short period of time.

While the twin closures leveled a one-two blow to the area, local, county, regional and state officials immediately began organizing a coalition to help the affected workers.

At the forefront of that effort are Brittany Beyer, executive director of Grow North Regional Economic Development Corporation and Stacey Johnson, executive director of the Oneida County Economic Development Corporation.

Both were in their first year in their respective positions when Petco announced the DFS closure Jan. 9.

"This year has been a great expansion of my focus, from one sector in one Northwoods city to the economy in general covering eight counties and three tribal nations," Beyer said in a recent interview.

Johnson agreed that the announcement had capped off a busy first year for her as well.

"This year OCEDC completed and was awarded an additional $175,000 in broadband grant funds to complete our initial goal of 90 percent accessibility to affordable coverage for all of Oneida County. We were able to create more financial partnerships with businesses and organizations than anytime in recent history. These partnerships led to the creation of a scholarship fund for residents of Oneida County to attend entrepreneur classes at Nicolet College," Johnson said. "We partnered with UW Extension to provide educational series which resulted in materials that are continuing to be used throughout the state, we recruited new businesses to the area and partnered to create the rapid response team responsible for the support provided to our community members effected by the closure of Petco."

Both women agreed that collaboration has been key to surviving and moving past these closures.

"This year reiterated something that I deeply believe - you have to listen before you make any moves. The people on the ground are going to know more than you, know the historical setting more than you do, and the locals can take the lead in solving their problems." Beyer said. "I'm here to hold them all up and solve problems with them. The web of interconnected players- municipalities, business owners, associations, market pressures, go on and on. There's no way you can know what you should do unless you listen for where the steam is seeping through the cracks."

"We all wear many hats in the work that we do. As president of the Northern Rail and Transit Commission and Director of Oneida County Economic Development I have learned the most effective way to effect change is to coordinate the right people in the room to support your agenda," Johnson noted. "We are not experts in everything and it is a disservice to represent as though we are. We can however build a network of experts to assist and educate when applicable."

Both women said the Northwoods gets plenty of attention from state government in Madison.

"It has been my personal experience that our state elected officials have been supportive and available anytime I have reached out. I am invited to many opportunities to share my views and concerns and to offer support when topics arise that I may be of assistance," Johnson reported. "I am hopeful this dynamic will remain the same throughout my career in the Northwoods."

"Our state officials are very good advocates for our region on a state level," Beyer agreed. "They have a very open door policy, allowing many of us economic development types to come in and see how we can work together even more. I appreciate that from them."

Still, there is more the state could do to help the Northwoods economy, they said.

"I am hoping that the state is going to be focusing more on rural communities and our unique challenges. So often I sit in meetings where the size of the program is way too big for any one business or community in our region can put forth a competitive proposal," Beyer said. "The state can also do more to make examples of those areas where we have excelled and become leaders in the state - like the fact we have established FabLabs in most (if not all) of the counties in Grow North - and support implementing those programs in a deeper manner."

Johnson was even more direct in her assessment of what the state could do better.

"Listen and learn," she said. "For far too long the Northwoods has been referred to as the backyard of the state. There is no doubt we are surrounded by majestic natural beauty, however that is not how I would like to see our region defined. We have connectivity and a virtually untapped market of talent and potential. It is important to me that we represent ourselves in this light."

"The future of economic development is predicated upon adaptability and creativity," she added. "The jobs that will be most in demand in the coming years do not even exist in today's market. Additionally, the fantastic jobs that we do have are continuing to change. Take for instance a job in a manufacturing plant, what this looked like a few years ago is completely different than what it looks like now. The skills associated with these jobs are also changing. We have the potential to create a community experience like very few others places. I hope the State embraces that potential and I will be actively ensuring that we are well represented."

Both women were asked what city of Rhinelander and Oneida County elected officials could do to advance the Northwoods economy.

"This is not the moment for our town, city, and county officials to shy away from playing a leading role in designing our future. We need them to work together with our business community and all of us individual citizens, who make every town and city unique," Beyer said. "We have urgent areas that need their attention - housing issues, business attraction, continuing to address the essential service of equitable cellular/broadband coverage. I'd like to hear more of, 'how can we work together?' rather than the other option. The municipalities have to be at the table as willing and stable partners to access some of the grant dollars that could enhance the area. When they are not, it hurts not only their community, but those in surrounding areas. Again, we are interconnected in ways seen and unseen."

"Communication and adaptability are key components to growth. Right now we are experiencing a time of change and development of a foundation in which progress can grow at the city," Johnson said. "We will be here to support and partner with our city and county officials as we look to advance economic and community development."

According to Beyer and Johnson, there is much that city, county and regional leaders can do to position the Northwoods for economic growth.

"Get curious about one area of concern, and dedicate a little bit of your time to find the others who are working on that issue," Beyer suggested. "It's not a short-term commitment - it will be at least a year of concerted attention. If you don't know, I can help you find them. We are in a time where we need to be 'all hands on deck.' I don't know if I can reiterate that enough, but it is true. And leaders are not age specific. If you are driven and young, or experienced and retired, you have much to offer. We need your voice at the table," she added. 

"Reach out to their partners within their communities. I have seen the positive results of collaboration. When we work together and support each other's initiatives, we accomplish so much more. The old mindset of viewing our neighboring cities and counties as competition simply doesn't work. If anything, it is one of the leading factors is creating the stagnate atmosphere the Northwoods has faced in the past," Johnson said. "We all hold positions where we are responsible to represent our communities based on facts and the future. Basing decisions on personal agendas or fears or mistakes of the past will not open the doors to prosperity or growth. Some initiatives will be more successful than others, some will fail completely, but.. some will blow us away and redefine our communities futures. (Elected officials) need to invite outside voices to the table and be willing to listen and learn and grow as one Northwoods Community. None of us are large enough on our own to command the attention we deserve."

Both women were also asked to describe what they would like the regional economy to look like five years and 10 years into the future.

"In five years, I'd like the Northwoods economy to have a handful of what I like to call, 'I can't believe their doing that in the Northwoods' businesses.' People you run into at the grocery store or at the downtown music festival and have a short introduction and you're blown away by what they do for a living- and live right here in the Northwoods. I know we already have some great stories like that, but I want there to be more," Beyer said. "In 10 years, I would like to read the United Way ALICE report (which measures poverty level living + Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed families- otherwise known as "paycheck to paycheck living")  for the region and not shake my head in despair. I'd like that to be sooner, but that time of reform takes time. The Northwoods should have a healthy mix of employment opportunities to enjoy the beautiful natural resources we have as a guest or as a year round resident. I know we can get there."

"I would love to see a thriving community with exceptional options for creative education. I would love to see our efforts to attract a new direction of businesses to have paid off. I would love to see our major manufactures exceeding expectation through the advancement of technology and a more reliable transportation and freight plan initiated by the state. I would love to see workforce issues a thing of the past because we are supporting our incredible tech schools like Nicolet College in their efforts to train and attract talent," Johnson said. "I would love to see major advancement to our housing crisis which includes the needs our younger generation is telling you they want. And most importantly, I would love to see coordination and collaboration as a given as it pertains to addressing needs such as this."

Of course, that raises the question of what will it take for the region to get there?

"It's going to take all of us working together. What I see is people who are working really hard in their business, or job, or elected official position; and sometimes the fear of changing the routine or shooting for a drastically different outcome is larger than anything. It's the elected officials working with the business sector working with the greater community that will change this tide. We have so many resources we are not utilizing. Let's see if we can continue the progress we have made thus far," Beyer said. 

"Collaboration and support for those of us that are working day and night to make it happen. Funding, so we can continue to do what we do and be the advocating voice for our region," Johnson said. "We need people to continue to get involved, come to county and city meetings and share your stories and show your support and concerns. This community is ours and therefor it is our responsibility and privilege to see it has the chance to reach its full potential."

Both women emphasized that to move the area forward local officials are going to have to start thinking regionally instead of locally. This is something that isn't natural for many in elected office, they pointed out.

"Some of it is that we, as local community members, need to make sure they have our needs on their (elected officials) radar. The need for someone to hear an issue over and over for it to make an impact (and from different voices - that is essential) is absolutely important," Beyer said. "The officials then need to try to think about what is possible rather than mitigating potential loss. There is much talk about being accountable to the tax base, which is absolutely true. But what if you are actually holding your tax base from growing-stifling opportunities-and that is where the true growth could be occurring? That also tasks the other side with making the regional proposal so strong that it is too good to turn down. Some advancements, which probably have to happen on a regional level to be accomplished in the Northwoods, are just that."

"I wish I had the answer to this. We are talking about doing things very differently than these folks have done for decades. I think it will take a combination of respect and diligent effort. It is important to remember how much can be achieved on our own. What I mean by that is, we do not need to wait for local officials to stamp approval on progress. We all have the ability to work together to achieve that. It is our responsibility to do what we can to educate and participate in local government meetings and affairs. Ultimately, the Northwoods is our home and I have no doubt by working together we will create and grow this area to something we are all very proud of," Johnson said, before issuing one last warning.

"If we continue to base our decision making on reports generated from the data of the past, we will continue to miss our opportunity to adapt and develop not only a sustaining economy, but an attractive and thriving one," she said.

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at jamie@rivernews

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