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Igniting Opportunity in the south Fox Valley


Economic development initiatives in Oshkosh, Fox Cities aim to enhance visibility of community assets to attract jobs

Story by Robin Driessen Bruecker

New and improved economic development initiatives launching in Oshkosh and in the Fox Cities promise to bring much more visibility and strategic focus toward developing the economy of the area. While there have been a variety of focused economic development efforts in existence in both communities in the past, these new efforts are driven by commissioned studies that have led to new brand identities to help promote the best each community has to offer.

In the Fox Cities, business leaders have worked for more than a year to develop Ignite Fox Cities, which officially began its program of work last month. In Oshkosh, a coordinated marketing effort began highlighting Opportunity Oshkosh late last year and into 2013 to help advance the city’s economic base.

Here’s an overview of each initiative and how they’ve evolved.

Ignite Fox Cities

A study commissioned by the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce & Industry during 2011 led to the implementation of a fundraising campaign to create an economic development corporation for Outagamie and Calumet counties, as well as the portion of Winnebago County north of County Road GG.

“The notion of establishing a regional economic development organization grew from the realization that this area had never had such – within the context of some 5,000 of these organizations operating throughout the country, and knocking on the doors of our own employers in an attempt to have them relocate to their areas,” said Larry Burkhardt, executive vice president of the new Fox Cities Economic Development Corp. created by the chamber. “I assume that part of the reason for this is that the region has never suffered through severe economic crisis – the trigger for many economic development organizations.”

The chamber’s board of directors hired Garner Economics of Atlanta to gather input from the local business, education, nonprofit and local government sectors toward the development of an economic development strategy for the area. Garner issued its report to the chamber in January 2012, which lead to the hiring of Burkhardt last May.

Establishing the Fox Cities EDC and launching Ignite Fox Cities means the region will be marketed more broadly, increasing awareness of its strong businesses and communities.

“We have a good story to tell, but the fact is that no one is out there telling it,” said Burkhardt. “In addition, we have the challenge that no one outside the region knows of the Fox Cities, as that name does not appear on a map.”

One of the goals is to continuously stimulate the Fox Cities’ primary job base through business development so it thrives and grows. Primary employers are companies that get most of their revenue from sales or services to customers outside of the area, which brings new dollars into the local economy.

“It is this activity alone that provides the support for the retail, service and professional sectors of the local economy,” noted Burkhardt.

He outlined two principal activities the FCEDC is undertaking to accomplish job-base stimulation: retention and expansion of existing industry and attraction of new industry.

“Given the fact that on a national level statistically some 70 percent of new job creation comes from the growth of existing companies, we intend to establish productive working relationships with existing primary employers to assure that they have access to the resources they need to remain competitive, grow their businesses, and in the process add more jobs,” explained Burkhardt. “This work involves a program of structured, on-site visits to the CEOs of our local companies to explore expansion or contraction plans, problems, challenges, opportunities, etc., as well as areas where the FCEDC may be of assistance.”

The program for attracting new companies addresses four sectors: food processing, quality business services, transportation equipment manufacturing, and innovative technologies. “This area has seen success in all four of these industry sectors, so our efforts will be to build on that success by working to attract additional OEMs as well as suppliers to these sectors,” said Burkhardt.

The FCEDC is coordinating its endeavors with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., The New North, Fox Cities Economic Development Partnership and the local brokerage community, Burkhardt noted. He also said the agency is developing a website geared toward site selectors, with a GIS-enabled, searchable real estate function.

Community impact

Through 2017, the Fox Cities EDC hopes this activity will lead to 1,200 additional primary jobs in the Fox Cities. Such employment growth could generate an economic impact of $141 million each year, including $4.7 million in new property taxes.

“My personal goal and that of my staff is to far exceed these goals, which were established prior to our hiring,” said Burkhardt.

The short- and long-term community impact of the job-creation program will be measured by the number of new jobs, capital investment by employers, and the increase in community-assessed valuation and per-capita income.

“In the final analysis, the goal is to assure that the community remains a quality place to live, offers meaningful employment opportunities, and is on a path of continual improvement,” added Burkhardt.

Through Ignite Fox Cities, the FCEDC has reached almost 75 percent of its yearly fundraising goal. “We are fortunate to have over 40 public and private sector companies and local governments stepping forward to fund the program,” Burkhardt noted.

BMO Harris Bank in Appleton is among those providing financial support, and District President William Braun is promoting Ignite Fox Cities through local media and networking with fellow business executives because he believes in the initiative’s investment in ongoing job creation, communities, families and the future.

“Overall, we will enhance the overall quality of life in the region and give our children the opportunity for a sustainable and prosperous future,” said Braun. “Past economic development efforts were modest because there was not a dedicated economic development officer or adequate funding. This is a comprehensive, aggressive economic development strategy.”

Sharon Hulce, president/CEO of Employment Resource Group in Appleton, is on the Ignite Fox Cities steering committee and focuses on involving employers through funding or sharing knowledge and connections. “We have a great wealth of knowledge right here in our backyard that can help this initiative to be wildly successful.”

The timing of the Garner Report findings and the $66.5 million facilities expansion plan at Fox Valley Technical College “couldn’t be better,” Hulce remarked. “The two match up perfectly, which has an added benefit to future and existing employers. What it means is we will have the best and brightest training at FVTC with state-of-the-art innovation, and offer those employers a ‘work-ready’ workforce to draw from right here. With the work ethic we are known for in Wisconsin, this alone could be a game changer.”

Opportunity Oshkosh

Further to the south, the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce took the lead role in developing a collaborative marketing initiative, dubbed Opportunity Oshkosh, in which various community organizations are working to jointly advance the city’s economic base.

“Collectively, we saw a need to develop a proactive marketing campaign specifically designed to improve and enhance the image of the city as an excellent place to locate, expand and grow business,” said John Casper, president and CEO of the chamber.

The effort contains two initial components, Casper explained. In addition to the Opportunity Oshkosh marketing campaign, there is also a business and industry cluster analysis for which the Chamber commissioned NorthStar Consulting and Economic Growth Advisors of Madison. “The results of this study will assist us in targeting our ongoing marketing efforts and resources to the types of business and industry that Oshkosh can best support,” Casper said.

Both components are funded by the partners. An additional grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration has underwritten half of the cost of the business and industry cluster analysis.

“Our goals are to expand the economic base, increase private sector investment, grow the tax base of the community and create employment opportunities,” said Casper. “There has been an advertising buy in regional business publications featuring Oshkosh-area CEOs discussing the advantages of conducting business in Oshkosh.”

Dan Hietpas, president of Muza Metal Products, has been active in promoting Opportunity Oshkosh.

“This initiative is so important because we need to change the image that Oshkosh is not business- and development-friendly,” said Hietpas. “There is a lot of effort from the chamber and the city to change that image, and we need to inform and educate potential businesses that Oshkosh has a lot to offer, and what those benefits are.”

Everyone who lives and works in the Fox Cities and Oshkosh has both a professional and personal stake in the region’s economic status.

“I want a great life for my 13-year-old daughter,” Hulce explained as part of her reason for getting involved with Ignite Fox Cities. “The paper industry isn’t what it once was and I just don’t think we can sit back and hope that our existing employers can keep our local economy vibrant alone. In my opinion, it is right for the chamber of commerce to lead an effort to make the quality of the business climate as robust as possible, by not only helping those here to grow, but by bringing in new industry to replace those we will lose over time.”

Robin Bruecker has 16 years experience in magazine and marcom writing. Contact her at