Jamie Taylor/river news
Brittany Beyer, right, executive director of Grow North Economic Development Corporation, right, made an extensive pitch to the state officials on ways the state can help regional groups grow their respective economies.
1/25/2020 7:30:00 AM Cabinet secretaries gather for roundtable at Nicolet Local officials offer input on area's needs
Just over 12 hours after Gov. Tony Evers gave his second State of the State address in Madison several of his cabinet members met Thursday morning with regional economic, education, financial and social agency leaders at Nicolet College in Rhinelander to discuss ways to boost the economy of northern Wisconsin.
The primary mission of the trip was to explain what Evers proposed in his Jan. 22 speech about pushing for nonpartisan redistricting of state election maps, help for the dairy industry and further aiding economic development in rural areas of the state.
At the same time, it allowed local officials to tell the Madison officials what the Northwoods really needs to help its growth.
Among those who made the stop at Nicolet College as part of a two-city tour that included an afternoon stop in Superior were Department of Administration (DOA) Secretary Joel Brennan, DOA director for business and rural development Brad Pfaff, Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) Secretary Kathy Blumenfeld and Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) Secretary Mary Kolar.
Brennan said everyone in the state delegation will be very involved in rural economic development through a new Office of Rural Prosperity.
"That office is really going to be about issues surrounding health care, home ownership and housing, transportation, all the little nuts and bolts involved," Brennan explained.
During the introductions, several issues were brought up by various stakeholders at the table, he added, noting that everyone expressed a commitment to a regional approach to solving problems facing entrepreneurs and business start-ups.
"When it comes to the workforce challenges, you grow your own. And you guys are an example where you have a number of people who have joined here within the last several months who are people who are from here and were able to keep here by giving you economic opportunities," Brennan said. "That's what the whole state needs to be about, and that's kind of the underlining message that the governor has had since he started on day 1."
Brennan noted that the area is facing demographic challenges "that aren't going away" and that an emphasis needs to be made on encouraging and nurturing people already living in the area to start a business.
Brennan said the state's agriculture industry is in crisis, with an average of two family farms going under every day. Evers called for a nonpartisan push for solutions in his message Wednesday, and Brennan said some of the collaborative efforts being used in the Northwoods might work in that regard.
Also mentioned as receiving a renewed push from the state was broadband expansion and development, which came up repeatedly throughout the discussion.
"To give you an example of how we're trying to put our money where our mouth is with broadband, in the budget that passed last summer, it was $48 million over the biennium - $24 million in the first year and roughly $24 in the second year - for broadband in the state," Brennan continued. "And the Public Service Commission took applications for the first $24 million and had about 140 applications for about $50 million worth of work."
A robust broadband infrastructure is "a pillar of economic development," he added.
"I think that is something that this part of the state can help us with and make sure we're really doing right ensuring that gets out to wherever it's needed," Brennan said.
Earlier, Brittany Beyer, executive director of Grow North Economic Development Corporation, said it was heartening to see the secretaries of the departments represented come together with regional representatives.
"This is the second time I've seen that," Beyer said. "I'm really excited about the Office of Rural Prosperity," she added. "We need to make sure that some of the resources come to the rural communities."
She also noted that another challenge for area employers and employees is a skills gap.
"That is a really important thing that gets heard in the capital because we do need assistance in creating and promoting the different ways you can help businesses provide the upscaling in training within their businesses," Beyer said. "In a way that is not costly for themselves (businesses)."
A shortage of quality housing, from single family homes to apartment complexes, is making it harder for potential businesses to anticipate where their workers will live, she added, noting that if there was a way the state could assist local municipalities in this regard it could be very beneficial.
Melinda Childs, community cultural development director at ArtStart, told the secretaries that she will be working with Nicolet College on a new program "to work on economic development through cultural avenues."
"That means making everything from making more exciting things happening here, and we want to help with entrepreneurial support for creatives," Childs said. "This is a really strong economic development piece in terms of workforce development and creating a community that is welcoming and also supporting artists."
She mentioned the Project North Festival had its inaugural run this fall.
The event, a celebration of arts and live music with an emphasis on sustainable living, is an example of an unusual approach to economic development, she said.
"I like to say you can connect everything to the arts," Childs added. "It's a great tool that is at everyone's disposal. And we like to collaborate with other agencies, as well."
Beyer pointed out that agriculture is a broad category, and in the Northwoods, that means timber.
"It is a renewable resource that is abundant up here and it is important to our economy here," Beyer said.
She also noted that something as simple as a lack of child care services can also be a factor holding back economic development.
"Every community has had a major child care provider close, and it's putting a strain on the system," Beyer said. "And it's really because the financial margins are so thin and it's part of regulation, but we can't get to economies of scale inside of that."
Beyer also noted that she is hearing that the Department of Public Instruction may be making tweaks to 4K in the state to see if this will help in the child care system.
There is also a concern that the shortage of child care may prevent some manufacturers from looking at moving into this area.
Brennan replied that the state received a $10 million federal grant to study ways to expand child care and there may be other federal resources that can be tapped.
"Wisconsin does not always get our fair share. We're humble people as a state, but we ought to be getting whatever we can from the federal government," Brennan said.
By working collaboratively, regional stakeholders are learning how to communicate better with Madison "so that we can build that support," Beyer added, noting that another thing that should be encouraged is making sure the Northwoods experiences a "boomerang effect" where people who leave the area to pursue their education have an area worth returning to.
"So people can go as far as they need to, but welcome back," Beyer said, adding this is a message the whole state should be repeating.
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