A retrospective on the major business stories from the region in the past year
By Sean Fitzgerald, New North B2B publisher
With the recall of Wisconsin’s governor behind us, another vicious presidential campaign in the books, and most critical economic indicators pointing upward once again, 2012 might be considered to be the beginning of a period of recovery and healing.
Industry is investing in plant expansions and equipment enhancements at a near decade-high mark, new skilled worker training programs were rolled out across the region, and major transportation infrastructure projects are at or near completion. The developments from the past year have set the stage for tremendous opportunity for northeast Wisconsin business in 2013.
As we have done each of the past 10 years at New North B2B magazine, we’ve compiled a list of the top state and local news stories affecting the business community in northeast Wisconsin during the past 12 months. These are the topics discussed around the office water cooler, in the break room or at board meetings, and are the issues that are likely to impact the business landscape of the region for years to come. Without further delay, the following is our list of the Top Ten business stories in the B2B coverage area for 2012.
1 Failed Recall of Gov. Walker
Our top business story of the region for 2012, and perhaps the top story of any statewide, is the failed effort to recall first-term Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Organizers of the recall effort delivered more than 1 million signatures to the state Government Accountability Board in mid-January, just a year after Walker had taken office. Four Democrats threw their hats into the ring for the right to challenge Walker in the recall, forcing a primary on May 8 which was won by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who squared off against Walker in the November 2010 race that the current governor won by 5 percentage points.
In capturing 53 percent of the vote on June 5, Walker not only earned the right to finish out his first term through 2014, but essentially won a statewide referendum supporting the highly controversial measures in Act 10 which required higher contributions from public employee unions toward their health insurance premiums and retirement funds.
Walker’s victory over his recall – coupled with a strong showing from Republicans in the state Legislature during November general elections – lead to definitive Republican control of Wisconsin’s executive and legislative branches and an indication from voters that they support a business-friendly agenda.
2 Medical College Outpost
After learning earlier in 2012 that officials for Medical College of Wisconsin planned to establish two outreach satellite campuses across Wisconsin, health care and community leaders in cities throughout the state came together to make their best pitch.
In late June, medical college officials announced the selection of Green Bay and central Wisconsin as the sites for two future satellite medical education campuses. By November, medical college officials narrowed their selection in the Green Bay area to the St. Norbert College campus in De Pere, with a plan to begin classes in an expanded science building by 2015.
The proposed $23 million investment from Milwaukee-based Medical College of Wisconsin will partner with Green Bay’s four major hospitals to create collaborative residency programs for medical students of the medical college. It will also take advantage of an existing patient simulation laboratory used by students at Bellin College in Bellevue.
One of the goals of the proposed campus is to help fill the physician shortage in northeast Wisconsin by training and mentoring more doctors in the region.
3 Fox Valley Tech Referendum
It’s been rare in Wisconsin for technical college districts to pursue a grocery list of large-scale capital expansion projects all at once, and even more unusual that technical colleges have reached out to property owners to ask them for additional financial support through increased taxation.
Responding to the need for greater capacity to accommodate degree-seeking students on waiting lists to enter career training programs, voters overwhelmingly approved a $66.5 million building referendum this past April by a 2-to-1 margin. The referendum package asked property owners to fund seven separate capital facilities projects aimed at increasing capacity to expand educational and job training programs.
The largest project – a $32.5 million public safety training center on the grounds of Outagamie County Regional Airport – broke ground this past fall and is scheduled to open in 2014. Other projects include a health simulation and technology center, an expansion of the general education area at the Appleton campus, an expansion of the existing transportation center, an expansion of the current agriculture center, and property acquisitions in Oshkosh and Chilton.
Altogether, the projects are expected to expand capacity for 700 degree-seeking students and 3,500 continuing education students.
4 Manufacturing Expansions
We were told in 2012 that industrial production was increasing among northeast Wisconsin manufacturers, and several plant expansion and modernizations projects across the region this past year proved manufacturer confidence.
In late January, Green Bay-based contract furniture manufacturer KI began constructing a $3.3 million, 100,000-sq. ft. expansion for its Bellevue facility, a project it wrapped up in June.
This past May, contract electronics manufacturer Plexus Corp. in Neenah began construction on a 473,369-sq. ft. plant in the city’s Southpark Industrial Center. The $50 million project is expected to create up to 350 jobs when it becomes operational at the end of 2013.
In September, Alliance Laundry Systems in Ripon launched a $23 million expansion project it expects will create more than 260 jobs in the next few years. The project will allow increased production of Alliance’s small chassis washer and dryers once it’s complete this coming fall. Later that same month, Wells Vehicle Electronics in Fond du Lac began construction on a two-story, 64,000-sq. ft. corporate headquarters in the city’s Rolling Meadows Industrial Park, which will include engineering and test labs and an automotive tech garage for product development. The company plans to create 73 jobs during the next three years.
Other notable industrial facility expansions across the region in 2012 include:
- 40,000-sq. ft. expansion, Basic American Medical Products, Fond du Lac;
- 96,000-sq. ft. new coil processing facility, McNeilus Steel, Fond du Lac;
- a $20 million investment upgrading facilities and expanding capacity, Mercury Marine, Fond du Lac;
- 47,700-sq. ft. addition, Muza Metal Products, Oshkosh;
- 52,871-sq. ft. expansion, Jay Manufacturing, Oshkosh;
- 30,734-sq. ft. expansion, Evco Plastics, Oshkosh;
- 19,500-sq. ft. addition, Classic Gears and Machining, Kaukauna;
- 37,120-sq. ft. new facility, G&G Machining, Kaukauna;
- 28,255-sq. ft. expansion, Mid Valley Industries, Kaukauna;
- 19,500-sq. ft. new facility, Amerex Foam Products, Howard;
- 25,450-sq. ft. addition, SMT Machine & Tool, Howard;
- 22,434-sq. ft. addition, Ace Manufacturing Industries, Howard;
- 97,000-sq. ft. addition, Little Rapids Corp., Green Bay;
- 217,884-sq. ft. new facility, Frontline Building Products, Green Bay.
- 100,000-sq. ft. new distribution center, FedEx Ground, Ashwaubenon.
5 Workforce Skills Gap Solutions
Bridging skills gaps in northeast Wisconsin’s workforce has been a growing concern in recent years, and educators, industry and government have worked together to identify both long-term and more immediate solutions.
In late January, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay unveiled a four-year, welder-fabricator apprenticeship program to respond to the needs of the state’s heavy manufacturing sector.
In July, Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac launched a manufacturing skills academy program that can provide an entry level welding certificate or a computer numerical control machine operator certificate in just 15 weeks. The program works with a variety of partnering industrial employers in its district to provide internships to students in the academy.
In September, Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton received a $3 million federal workforce-training grant for its Advanced Manufacturing Pathways Plus program to expand flexible learning options in four advanced manufacturing pathways.
Lastly, the University of Wisconsin System unveiled a competency-based degree model of higher education in June that will allow students to earn credit for what they’ve already learned in school, on the job or on their own. The new flexible educational model is expected to make UW college degrees significantly more accessible and affordable, with the ultimate goal of increasing the number of Wisconsin residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
6 Mining Woes
Despite the promise of hundreds of high-paying jobs in the Northwoods, thousands of jobs statewide, and billions of dollars injected into the state’s economy, executives from Gogebic Taconite dropped plans for a $1.5 billion iron mine near Mellen in March after legislation to improve Wisconsin’s mining regulatory climate died on the floor of the state senate.
The decision by Gogebic Taconite, as well as the legislature’s failure to modify mining regulations, were perceived as a black eye on the state’s business-friendly character. Opponents of the compromised legislative bill argued it made the procedure for challenging state regulators’ permitting decisions too difficult, and also jeopardized the environment.
7 Oshkosh Shareholders Fight Takeover
Shareholders of specialty vehicle manufacturer Oshkosh Corp. upstaged two separate takeover bids from noted billionaire investor Carl Icahn during the course of 2012. Community leaders noted that had Icahn been successful, he likely would have merged Oshkosh operations together with his other industrial holdings and – at the very least – eliminate nearly all of the nearly 500 corporate and administrative jobs associated with the company in Oshkosh and the Fox Cities.
Icahn’s first effort in late January attempted to place a slate of his own appointees to the publically traded firm’s board of directors during its annual shareholder meeting. Director nominees recommended by the company defeated those nominated by Icahn.
In October, Icahn issued an unsolicited bid to purchase any outstanding shares of the company at the price of $32.50 per share, hoping to acquire 25 percent of all outstanding shares of the company and gain greater influence over the company’s board of directors. After failing to acquire 25 percent of the company by a self-imposed deadline in early December, Icahn backed away from his proxy battle and dropped his offer to purchase additional shares.
8 Green Bay Energy Plant Flip Flop
Oneida Seven Generations Corp., an entity associated with the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, had already began constructing its $23 million alternative energy plant on Green Bay’s north side when the city’s common council decided in October to rescind the permit it issued a year and a half earlier, citing concerns they were previously misled about the plant’s air emissions and potential public health hazards.
The proposed 70,000-sq. ft. pyrolytic gasification electricity generation plant – which would incinerate common household trash at extremely high temperatures and convert the byproducts into electricity – had received a $1.1 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Energy in February to aid the cost of construction. The plant was expected to greatly reduce the amount of trash going into the Brown County landfill, create a number of jobs in the area, and generate enough electricity to power more than 3,000 residences.
As a result of the council’s permit revocation, Oneida Seven Generations filed a $4 million lawsuit against the City of Green Bay claiming the common council acted beyond its authority and seeks to recover expenses already incurred for project design, permitting and construction.
9 U.S. 41 Project Takes Shape
As has been the case in recent years, the gradual completion of the nearly half-billion-dollar project to upgrade and expand U.S. Highway 41 to six lanes on much of the stretch between Oshkosh and Green Bay is an important infrastructure improvement toward one of the most important economic development amenities of the region. Once fully complete in 2014, the improved U.S. 41 will allow greater transport of goods in and out of northeast Wisconsin, and easier commuting between communities for its workforce.
During the course of 2012, transportation officials:
- Completed a $29 million reconstruction of the Mason Street interchange and bridge over U.S. 41 in Green Bay, as well as expanding U.S. 41 to three lanes in each direction between 9th Street and Larsen Road.
- Completed the second stage of the $45 million reconstruction and expansion of the eight-mile stretch of U.S. 41 in Winnebago County between the U.S. Highway 45 and Breezewood Lane interchanges, widening northbound traffic to three lanes. Southbound U.S. 41 on the same stretch was reconstructed during 2011.
- Completed the $57 million project to reconstruct the U.S. 41/Main Avenue interchange in De Pere and expand U.S. 41 to six lanes between Orange Lane and Glory Road in Brown County.
- Completed the $54 million project to reconstruct the U.S. 41/WIS 21 interchange in Oshkosh and expand U.S. 41 to six lanes between Witzel Avenue and the Lake Butte des Morts Causeway.
- Completed reconstructions of the Lombardi Avenue interchange in Green Bay and the Breezewood Lane interchange in Neenah.
- Began work on the $97 million reconstruction of the U.S. 41/WIS 29 interchange near Green Bay, a project scheduled to be complete by October 2014.
10 St. Elizabeth Hospital Expansion
In October, officials from Ministry Health Care announced plans for a $108 million improvement project at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton. The project is expected to be complete by January 2015.
The centerpiece of the project includes construction of a five-story, 90-bed tower. Additional improvements include:
- renovations to the cancer center;
- renovations to the adolescent behavioral health unit;
- demolition of the west part of the hospital built in 1924;
- new entrances to women/families center and surgery;
- upgrades to the central utility plant;
- and new diagnostic and operative equipment.
2012 Honorable Mention
New Ripon hospital
Agnesian HealthCare purchased 20 acres of land adjacent to its clinic in Ripon to construct a replacement for Ripon Medical Center. The 120,000-sq. ft., 25-bed hospital and medical office building is expected to be complete in early 2014.
KI Center expansion
The City of Green Bay is moving forward on a $19.5 million expansion of the downtown KI Convention Center which will add more than 30,000 square feet to the current 44,000-sq. ft. facility and make it the fifth largest convention center in the state. The project is currently in the design stage, with construction expected to begin in late 2013. The expansion will be funded using half of the additional increment from a 2 percent hike in the county’s hotel room tax, as well as nearly $8 million from the city through tax incremental financing, management fees and proceeds from naming rights.
Alta Resources growth
Alta Resources in Neenah reportedly added nearly 1,000 jobs during 2012 in customer care, fulfillment, sales and IT positions. It held job fairs during August and December.
Oshkosh downtown hotel revamped
A partnership between the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Foundation and Fox Cities hoteliers Richard Batley and John Pfefferle purchased the ailing City Center Hotel on the Fox River in downtown Oshkosh in February and began a $14 million renovation to modernize and improve the eight-story, 179-room property into a full-service business hotel. The renamed Oshkosh Premier Waterfront Hotel and Ground Round Restaurant are expected to open in spring 2013.
Catalpa Health hatched
Fox Cities health care officials came together to create Catalpa Health, a joint endeavor providing outpatient child and adolescent behavioral and mental health services. A first of its kind organization in the region, Catalpa expects to begin operations this January.
The Town of Harrison in Calumet County received approval from the state Department of Administration to incorporate about 4.6 square miles in the densely populated area of Darboy into a village. The area’s nearly 7,400 residents must approve incorporation in a referendum sometime in early 2013.
Fox Cities Stadium upgrade
The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and the Fox Cities Amateur Sports Authority began work on a nearly $6 million renovation project to Fox Cities Stadium that will add a second level to include six new suites and a banquet hall capable of seating 250 people. The project – which is expected to be complete by the start of the 2013 season – also includes improvements to the customer service center, additional restrooms, larger concessions, an expanded team store and enhanced player facilities.
New regional health plan
Prevea Health and St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay partnered with Madison-based Dean Health Plan to create Prevea360 Health Plan, a new health insurance product based on Prevea’s physician group and its partner hospitals, including St. Mary’s and St. Vincent Hospitals in Green Bay and St. Nicholas Hospital in Sheboygan.
The Windhover Center for the Arts in Fond du Lac began a multi-million dollar expansion project to nearly double the size of the existing facility to 37,200 square feet. Once complete this coming fall, the new space will include outdoor live entertainment, expanded classrooms, and a new art gallery.
Nuclear shut down
Virginia-based Dominion, which owns the 556-megawatt Kewaunee nuclear power facility along the shore of Lake Michigan, said it will close and decommission the electrical generating plant this coming spring after failed attempts to find a buyer for the facility.