Northeast Wisconsin manufacturers are ramping up physical plant growth
Story by Rick Berg
When the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance released its 2015 Manufacturing Vitality Index last December, it may have appeared to some as a somewhat overly optimistic forecast, but through the first nine months of the year, that optimism seems well placed.
In that December 2014 Index, 30 percent of the 151 manufacturers surveyed (all with at least $3 million or more in annual revenue and 25 or more employees) said they planned to expand their facilities in 2015 and 66 percent said they planned to modernize their plants.
Both of those projections were significantly higher than at any time since the index was first released in 2010.
Jim Golembeski, executive director of Bay Area Workforce Development Board and one of the founding members of the N.E.W. Manufacturing Alliance, said that speaks volumes about the strength of the manufacturing sector in northeast Wisconsin, which has thrived in spite of the economic setbacks of 2008-2009. In fact, Golembeski said, the biggest challenge facing northeast Wisconsin manufacturers is not the economy but rather the dearth of talent needed to staff the growing needs of the manufacturing economy.
Case in point: When Sturgeon Bay’s Palmer Johnson announced in September it was shutting down operations and would lay off 100-plus workers, the obvious concern was what to do about those about-to-be-displaced workers. According to Golembeski, there’s little need for concern.
“Since that announcement, I’ve been getting two to three emails and phone calls a day from other manufacturers asking me how they can talk to those workers,” Golembeski said. “They’re not going to be out of work long.”
That’s because 86 percent of manufacturers surveyed said they expected to increase sales in 2015, 46 percent said they expected to increase hiring, and 72 percent said they anticipated difficulty filling those slots.
Another case in point: In 2013 and 2014, Oshkosh Corp. laid off more than 1,000 workers when its U.S. Defense Department contracts wound down, but many of those workers were incorporated into other manufacturing jobs in the region at companies like Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac and Alliance Laundry in Ripon, said Rob Kleman, executive director of the Oshkosh Area Economic Development Corp.
“That’s one of the benefits of a regional economy like ours,” Kleman said. “Businesses go through down cycles, but other businesses are able to absorb that.”
Now Oshkosh Defense has a new contract which could have it building up to $30 billion worth of Joint Light Tactical Vehicles over the next 25 years. It’s already rehired more than 400 workers and has plans to hire more.
Oshkosh Corp. has no immediate plans for plant expansion, Kleman said, but the new contract will likely spur growth in the company’s supply chain within the near future.
With that said, here’s a look at what’s happening in physical plant and infrastructure development across the region.
Oshkosh explosive in manufacturing growth
Even before Oshkosh Corp.’s new Defense Department contract, Oshkosh was experiencing a wealth of industrial construction.
“In the Oshkosh area, we’ve had a tremendously diverse economy from the industrial perspective,” said Kleman. “It’s been a very positive environment for us with much more potential for growth.”
To make room for that growth, Oshkosh has already expanded its Southwest Industrial Park and is developing the new Aviation Industrial Park near Wittman Airport.
New industrial construction includes:
• Bemis Healthcare Packaging, which is completing a $25 million, 110,000-sq. ft. addition to its Oshkosh plant, promising to add 160 or more jobs. The project is funded in part by $2 million in tax increment financing from the city and another $2 million in forgivable loans from the state.
• In January, 4imprint began a $10 million, 100,000-sq. ft. expansion of its distribution facility and 25,000 square feet of office space in Oshkosh, with plans to add more than 150 new jobs.
• MultiCircuits, a manufacturer of printed circuit boards, recently completed a 28,162-sq. ft. expansion, including 24,000 square feet of production and warehouse space.
• Bemis Curwood is expanding its tandem coater building.
Fond du Lac growing and ready for more
Fond du Lac County has already experienced steady growth and is poised for more, according to Steve Jenkins, executive director of Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp.
“We’ve been very strong, particularly in manufacturing,” Jenkins said. “Over the last eight years, that sector has created 2,845 new jobs and retained 2,058.”
Jenkins said his organization is working with three existing companies for expansion projects, but wasn’t able to reveal their identity yet because the deals are still being negotiated in confidence. In addition, he said, “there are two companies currently exploring relocation to Fond du Lac, but the same confidentiality restriction applies.”
There are no current plans for infrastructure growth, Jenkins said, “because the communities have done a great job of providing the industrial infrastructure. We have two business parks in Fond du Lac, one in North Fond du Lac, one in Waupun, one in Ripon and one in Campbellsport with fully served sites ready to build on. We are well positioned with available, served sites ranging from two to 70 acres.”
Business Facilities magazine recently ranked Fond du Lac County No. 9 in the nation for advanced manufacturing specialization. The data source was the Brookings Institute and reflects the presence of advanced manufacturing processes, workforce and equipment.
Among current Fond du Lac County expansion projects:
• ACH Foam Technologies just occupied the 60,000-sq. ft. spec building in Fox Ridge Business Park on Fond du Lac’s south side.
• Mercury Marine is currently building a 45,000-sq. ft. addition to its paint facility. Since 2009, Mercury has added approximately 1,500 jobs and made $500 million in new investment on the Fond du Lac campus, including a new Innovation Center.
• Marchant-Schmidt recently built an addition to its Fond du Lac facility to meet the global demand for its products.
• Ultra Tech Tool & Die built an addition to its facility in Fond du Lac.
• Ripon’s Alliance Laundry Systems recently completed a 106,000-ft. addition after building a 20,000-sq. ft. facility in 2013.
• Swenson Tool & Die relocated its Kewaskum production facility to the Campbellsport Industrial Park with a new 16,250-sq. ft. facility, adding more than 20 new jobs.
Little Chute was prepared for growth
Little Chute Village Administrator James Fenlon said the village has worked hard to ensure it’s ready for the manufacturing expansion already taking place in the community. That included improvements in its industrial park infrastructure, including expanded storm-water retention.
“That’s been one of our biggest challenges,” Fenlon said. “That has to be very well calculated in advance so that there are no delays when companies are ready to build.”
The village is also planning improvements to its Randolph Drive development area north of Interstate 41. The planning has paid off, with several expansion projects underway:
• Trilliant (formerly Victor Allen’s) recently purchased 8.4 acres in the Village Industrial Park to build a 215,000-sq. ft. expansion. The site is currently home to the village’s Municipal Services building, which will be relocated to the Randolph Drive development area.
• Shapes Unlimited completed a $1.5 million, 35,000-sq. ft. expansion of its manufacturing and warehouse facility this year.
Green Bay strong, but still room for growth
Green Bay “has definitely seen an uptick in industrial development recently,” said Kevin Vonck, the city’s economic development director.
The city’s I-43 Industrial Park is 90 percent sold out, though some businesses purchased land years ago for future expansion that is yet to be built upon.
“A lot of companies bought more than they needed at the time, and they probably wondered about the wisdom of that in 2008 or so, but now they’re very glad they did” Vonck said.
The city still has room for growth in its University Heights Business Park, but Vonck expects that area to see consistent growth in the near future. Significant expansions recently:
• Seura completed an 11,400-sq. ft. addition to its facility in the I-43 Industrial Park.
• Handling & Conveying Systems recently moved its operations from Clintonville to Green Bay with a new 32,500-sq. ft. facility on the city’s University Heights Business Park. H&CS produces conveyors and production robotics.
Appleton is expecting more growth
Karen Harkness, director of community development for the City of Appleton, noted the city has seen “increased interest and construction that should be sustained into the near future.” To accommodate that, she said, the city is adding infrastructure in its South Point Commerce Park.
• The most noteworthy addition is Neenah Paper’s 44,000-sq. ft. addition at its Appleton mill down in the flats of the Fox River. The project is expected to be complete in the second half of 2016.
• Pacon is spending about $8 million on building renovations and equipment purchases as a result of the company’s acquisition of the assets of New Jersey-based Roselle Paper Co. Inc.
Those operations have been relocated to Appleton.
- Fox Valley Wood Products recently completed a 16,000-sq. ft. addition to its lumber re-manufacturing facility. The expansion will help the third-generation company diversify its lumber source and streamline its production capabilities, said company officials.
- Team Industries expanded its fabrication building in Kaukauna, adding 54,000 square feet to the existing 100,000-sq. ft. facility and adding more than 150 jobs. Team Industries had previously completed a 30,000-sq. ft. addition to its loading facility.
- Expera Specialty Solutions announced late last year that it would establish its corporate headquarters in Kaukauna in the historic Eagle Mill. The facility will also house the Kaukauna Public Library. Expera is receiving a $1 million loan from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to assist the company’s development.
- PolyFlex completed a new 60,000-sq. ft. facility in Kaukauna’s NEW Prosperity Center.
Ashwaubenon and De Pere
- Astro Industries Inc., a metal coating and finishing company, expanded its operations in Ashwaubenon with a 20,000-sq. ft. addition to help it meet existing demand and accommodate future production and sales growth.
- Green Bay Packaging completed a brand new $95 million, 240,000-sq. ft. label facility late last year.
- GAT Supply and Tenor Construction Supply & Rental expanded to a new location on Glory Road, constructing an 18,000-sq. ft. facility last year.
- Belmark continued its expansion program in De Pere’s East Industrial Park, breaking ground on a 55,661-sq. ft. addition this past summer.
Other Fox Cities communities
- Werner Electric Supply is nearing completion of construction on a new 250,000-sq. ft. corporate headquarters and regional distribution center in the town of Grand Chute off of County Road BB. Set to open in 2016, the new building is expected to create nearly 100 jobs during the next five years.
- Late last year, Jansport/VF Outdoor completed a 19,432-sq. ft. addition to its manufacturing plant and offices in the town of Greenville to accommodate the company’s skyrocketing growth. The $2.7 million project is eligible for state job creation tax credits if the company meets targets for creating new jobs.
- Earlier this year, F.C. Dadson completed a 38,500-sq. ft. addition to its facility on Craftsmen Drive in the town of Greenville.
- Piping Systems Inc. expanded its Hortonville fabrication plant earlier this year from 50,000 square feet to more than 115,000 square feet. The $5.5 million project came as a result of a major new contract the company received in 2014.
- In addition to Menasha Corp.’s new headquarters facility in Neenah, which is expected to open next year, the packaging manufacturer is expanding its pre-print facility in Neenah to accommodate the addition of a new flexographic printing press. The expansion will add 45,500 square feet to the existing 94,000-sq. ft. facility.
Rick Berg is a freelance editor and writer based in Green Bay.