Instead of making businesses do all the legwork as they pondered an expansion or move to Superior, the northern Wisconsin community opted to bring its leaders together to talk with companies.
David Minor, former leader of the Superior-Douglas County Area Chamber of Commerce, credited this approach where government officials, business groups and economic development agencies worked together for making it easier for companies to make their decisions.
“The biggest thing for businesses was they came in and told their story once,” Minor said.
After hearing the pitch from companies that wanted to grow in the Superior area, the local team would figure out what the community could offer in areas including incentives, expertise and worker training. That team would meet again in three weeks and present their proposal to the interested business.
That group approach to economic development has been in place for about 20 years in Superior, and Eau Claire may be headed in a similar direction.
Getting to the summit
An economic development summit that brought local government leaders and business groups together for three meetings between October 2016 and February 2017 will be followed by a second summit that is being planned this year.
The idea is not to change what the county, city, economic agencies and business groups do on their own to give a boost to the area’s economy, but to better coordinate their efforts.
“By the time we’re done, the group will have a better understanding of ways in which they can cooperate more fully and have better consensus of what is economic development in our region,” said Kathryn Schauf, Eau Claire County administrator and a lead organizer of the summits.
During this year’s summit — the date is still being decided — a task force made of representatives from 11 local organizations will develop a broad strategy, measurable goals and objectives on how the Eau Claire area should address economic development.
From what Minor has seen since becoming president and CEO of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce in July, he said leaders in the area have a spirit of cooperation to attract jobs, but not the same formalized structure of doing so that he’d seen in Superior.
“Working together is going on here, but I don’t know that everyone sees it,” he said.
Regular meetings and the ability to show businesses to a “one-stop shop” for their needs of expanding to the area would be good additions for Eau Claire, Minor said.
“That is one way we can continue this momentum of growth,” he said.
Started by funds crunch
Though the summits have the larger goal of coordinating efforts to attract jobs, they started in part because Eau Claire city and county governments saw some of their economic development funds running out.
“Both of us are in the same boat, and that’s why the summit was called originally to fund a sustainable source of economic development,” said Mike Schatz, economic development administrator for the city of Eau Claire.
The summary report for the first summit begins with “As funding challenges for area economic development continue to increase and past funding sources diminish ...”
The county’s Industrial Development Agency, which helped secure deals with growing employers decades ago but had more recently been a funding source for other economic development groups, was effectively made defunct last month by a County Board vote. That small agency, which got its funding from selling excess public land many years ago, is on pace to run out of money next year.
The city lost access last year to the Regional Business Fund, which offers small, low-interest loans to help west-central Wisconsin businesses expand, add technology, improve downtown storefronts, create jobs and invest in capital.
But city and county leaders have shown they want to remain players in economic development and are finding ways to replenish funding for their efforts.
Schatz is working on a proposal that will be presented in coming weeks to the City Council to reproduce loan programs in Eau Claire that were similar to what the regional fund offered.
“We hope in the near future we’ll be coming to council with some potential changes and new programs,” Schatz said.
Schauf said the county already is discussing ways to find ongoing revenue sources to contribute to economic development.
“As we look to the future, we will look at other ways to fund those initiatives to keep that economic development going,” she said.
The city’s 2018 budget even boosted its support to more quickly transform former industrial property along the Chippewa River into the Cannery District. Previously getting $250,000 annually from the city for land acquisition and relocations, the Eau Claire Redevelopment Authority got about $1 million this year.
“That was very encouraging,” Schatz said.
Schauf believes the summits grew beyond the challenges faced by the city and county, and are about a greater goal of fostering cooperation to attract jobs.
“It may have been the start of a conversation, but we very quickly realized the importance of economic and community development and what that means for where we live,” she said.
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