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Speed Sells

New North’s Gold Shovel Ready pilot program is designed to accelerate the process of site selection and development.

Story by Rick Berg

March 2017

Time and timing is everything in the world of economic development, according to Jerry Murphy, executive director of New North. In Murphy’s development mantra, you can’t overestimate the importance of speed of response when potential corporate tenants come calling.

“Time is a major competitive factor in responding to requests from site selectors,” said Murphy.

So it is that New North recently launched its Gold Shovel Ready Program, with a pilot project that focused on three development sites in northeast Wisconsin – the Oshkosh Aviation Business Park, the 141 Business Park in Marinette County and a 5.7-acre private site in the Greenville Crossing Business Park.

The Gold Shovel program requires participants to assemble documentation noting common criteria site selectors will ask for (see “Gold Shovel Criteria, page 30). The documentation is then reviewed and verified by either the East Central Wisconsin or Bay-Lake regional planning commissions.

Murphy said participation in the Gold Shovel program can have a dual advantage. First, it’s a proactive approach that ensures a community’s development site is ready for submission to a potential site selector. Second, it validates the site as ready for construction, with no need to wait on permits and other regulatory delays.

“If you simply do all of the due diligence required of the Gold Shovel, you are going to be in a better position to be responsive to any site inquiries,” Murphy said.

Ann Hartnell, executive director of the Marinette County Association for Business & Industry, was one of the first to sign on to the Gold Shovel pilot program and agrees it holds great promise for local economic development organizations like hers.

“I see the Gold Shovel site certification as economical and the only way to get small sites certified. The marketing of the sites is a huge benefit to the municipality and ultimately to the county as a whole,” Hartnell said.

A lower cost alternative

The Gold Shovel Ready program was first introduced in Wisconsin in 2015 by Momentum West, a regional economic development organization serving the Chippewa Valley from Eau Claire. The Gold Shovel program was designed as an alternative to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.’s Certified Sites program, which is intended for large industrial sites. That program is vetted by Deloitte Consultants and carries a price tag of $10,000 or even significantly more, depending on the size and complexity of the site.

WEDC Certified Sites are listed on WEDC’s Locate in Wisconsin website, but WEDC also lists Momentum West’s Gold Shovel Ready sites. Besides New North, regional economic development organizations in Madison and southwest Wisconsin are also conducting pilot Gold Shovel programs. Sites certified in those regions are expected to be included in the WEDC database once the pilot programs are completed.

Gold Shovel offers an affordable site-selection tool for developers, said Coleman Peiffer, WEDC business and investment attraction director.

“Based on cost, location or a number of other factors, a developer might choose a Gold Shovel Ready site instead of a Certified Site,” Peiffer said. “By requiring the collection of site documentation in one convenient place, the Gold Shovel Ready sites program identifies the basic information property owners should have readily available when marketing their sites, allows these sites to stand out against the competition and increases the number of options available to site selectors.”

Cost and documentation challenge

Murphy noted the Gold Shovel process is not without cost or time commitment, though much of the time and documentation required would have to be done in any case to respond to a site selector inquiry. Hartnell said the effort is manageable.

“The biggest challenge was getting the information put together,” Hartnell said. “The municipality had some documentation already, but other things they didn’t have it, nor did they know where to go to find it. That is where the economic development professional and their engineer plays a large role.”

Hartnell’s Gold Shovel submission involved a 25-acre site in the 141 Business Park in the Village of Pound.

“This site is on the Highway 141 corridor that is seeing growth in Marinette County,” said Hartnell. “This site also has the potential for expansion for larger projects and rail along Highway 141 within a quarter mile. Neither the site nor the surrounding area has contamination issues and no wetlands to the west and north.”

The process was relatively painless, she said, following a meeting between Pound municipal officials and Hartnell’s office, along with a private-sector engineer contracted to assist with the process.

“We met to walk through the needed material, assigning tasks. A few weeks later, I met with the municipality to again walk through to determine what was still needed and organize the material,” Hartnell said. “Once this is complete, the engineer will go through the material and sign off. Then the submittal process will begin. The time put in by the municipality, engineer and me is probably 20 to 25 hours. However, this is a small municipality that does not have resources on hand and information digitized. Thus, they could not just organize information already available.”

Hartnell said she would do it all again, gladly.

“The process was a learning one with this first one, but it worked and the small hurdles were worked out without a problem,” Hartnell added.  “I have another municipality lining up to start this spring and a private landowner doing the same.”

The process was also relatively straightforward and cost-effective, said Jason White, executive director of Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp., especially since

GO-EDC was able to use an in-house municipal engineer.

GO-EDC’s Gold Shovel site is the 80-acre Oshkosh Aviation Business Park – to the east of Wittman Field – designed for development of an aviation industry cluster. That site has been under development since 2014.

“It’s just being proactive rather than reactive,” White said. “The questions we’re asked to respond to for the Gold Shovel program are the same kind of questions we’re likely to be asked by a site selector. The thing is, going through this process created a greater sense of urgency for us to better delineate some of these criteria.”

Weston Zuleger, a project manager at Kaukauna-based general contractor Keller Inc., said the process was similarly streamlined for his team at Keller, since they had been through the process for other site submittals.

“I was probably able to fill out 90 percent of the submission forms in an hour or so,” Zuleger said. “The rest took a little more digging, but it’s very similar to what we’ve done in the past and so we knew what to look for and where.”

Validating submissions

One key to the process is the role of the regional planning commissions in reviewing and validating the submittals.

“The RPCs simply work in the background with this effort, but it is a critical part of the process,” said Eric W. Fowle, executive director of the East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission in Menasha. “Our staff has a myriad of experience in planning and economic development, as well having great knowledge of where to find information about a piece of property. So, our role is to essentially verify and confirm that information submitted for a site by the community or its consultant is accurate and complete.”

While the process is still in the pilot stage, Fowle said the framework is well-established.

“A checklist of required information about the property is used to cross-reference with existing and known data sources,” Fowle said. “If questions arise regarding the accuracy, source or timeliness of the information, the RPC will document the concerns and work with the community or consultant to rectify any shortcomings. Once the site passes this verification it can be formally registered as a Golden Shovel site.”

The regional planning commissions’ ability to tap into its geographic information systems (GIS) data allows the commission staff to quickly evaluate and validate mapping and zoning data for each submission, said Joshua Schedler, GIS coordinator with the Bay-Lake Regional Planning Commission in Green Bay.

“That can really help streamline the process and make it as painless as possible for everyone,” Schedler said.

Competitive advantage

Having gone through the Gold Shovel process, Hartnell said she would recommend it to other economic development organizations – especially in smaller communities with smaller development sites.

“The site selection process is often thought to be for large companies expanding or moving,” Hartnell said, “but small companies go through the same process when looking for a new site. They are just looking for a smaller site to develop. Gold Shovel is affordable and allows smaller sites to be marketed and ultimately developed. The process is manageable by the smallest community.”

Fowle believes the Gold Shovel Ready program can be a boon to development throughout the New North.

“Site selectors value this information as much as they do basic demographic or infrastructure information for the region they are focused on,” said Fowle. “Once preliminary decisions are made with respect to the general area, a hard target search for available properties is typically the next step. Having a list of available development sites that are essentially pre-approved and free from questions related to land and highway access, development regulations, and infrastructure availability is of great value to site selectors.”

“This can really be a very beneficial tool regionally,” Schedler agreed. “It creates a one-stop shop for site selectors looking at the region.

Fowle said the Gold Shovel program will create a unique data set at the regional level for use by site selectors.

“This is often the scale at which such searches begin,” Fowle said. “Gold Shovel will replace several existing local and sub-regional efforts of similar types, and will generally offer more information for each site, as well as consistency in how the information is portrayed for all sites across the region. Scale and consistency, along with the natural efficiencies of doing a project like this at the regional level are the main benefits for the communities.”

Murphy said with the proliferation of site-certification programs nationwide, having validation from a program like Gold Shovel Ready will provide an increasingly important advantage.

“With the certification and validation of the documentation by a third party like the regional planning commission, you’re providing credible and current documentation that eliminates the need for a site selector to do that work,” Murphy said. “Simply from a marketing standpoint, it shows how ready you are to work with a developer. If you’re a developer, who would you rather work with – someone who is out there trying to define property lines or someone who has all the maps and charts there on the table, validated and current? That’s really the bottom line – to preemptively position ourselves to be stronger in the marketplace.”  

Rick Berg is a freelance writer and editor based in Green Bay.