Written by David Eckmann
In the complexities of the 21st-century knowledge economy, economic development initiatives require an array of public and private sector partners to develop vibrant and competitive communities. Given the changing nature of the domestic and global economy, coupled with the emergence of COVID-19, it is more important than ever to build and sustain public–private partnerships (P3s) that plan, align, and direct resources that will allow Marathon County to compete at a high level to attract and retain talented people and retain, grow, and attract innovative companies.
Since 2007, in my time at the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce, several of those years being with MCDEVCO, I have had an abundance of opportunities to work on a variety of economic development initiatives with Marathon County Government, municipal governments, and businesses throughout the county. These efforts have always been directed to establish sustainable partnerships that aim to position our greater Marathon County community to develop and compete for talent and business — today and in the future.
Greater Wausau Region Economic Development Strategic Plan
In the fall of 2018, the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce — through a partnership with business and industry, MCDEVCO, and Marathon County Government — engaged TIP Strategies, an Austin, Texas-based economic development consulting firm, to develop an economic development strategic plan.
In March of 2019, the Greater Wausau Region Economic Development Strategic Plan was unveiled. The plan called for the creation of an economic development partnership — the Greater Wausau Prosperity Partnership — that would begin to identify and assemble resources to establish a tactical path forward.
Greater Wausau Prosperity Partnership
The Greater Wausau Prosperity Partnership (GWPP), composed of corporate, governmental, and community leaders, was established to serve as the leadership role in the implementation and execution of the plan in the strategic goals of Talent, Innovation, and Placemaking. The goals are defined as:
Goal 1: Talent
Develop, Attract, and Retain a Skilled Workforce and Talented Individuals.
Over the last decade, labor availability has risen to the forefront of corporate strategy and site location decisions. As a result, economic development organizations have recognized that the ability to attract and retain top-tier talent is a fundamental component of economic success. In the COVID-19 environment, developing and securing talent remains a priority.
Goal 2: Innovative Companies
Nurture, Grow, and Attract Technology-Enabled Companies.
Connecting Marathon County’s entrepreneurial companies with the innovation-focused assets in the region and throughout the state will be key to the region’s economic vitality. These efforts should leverage the region’s strengths in manufacturing and agriculture and capitalize on growth in industries like healthcare to support the needs of existing companies and to attract new investment.
Goal 3: Placemaking
Develop Quality Places and Amenities to Attract the Best and Brightest.
Creating quality places is an essential ingredient for attracting talent and companies. Wausau has enviable advantages in this regard, including a vibrant downtown, a wide range of recreational amenities, and several historic buildings. Protecting and enhancing these assets will serve both current and future residents. Maximizing the opportunities associated with the Wisconsin River is an important aspect of this goal.
Year-1 Progress Report
Immediately following the formation of the GWPP, leadership set course to populate three distinct subcommittees consisting of volunteers and community stakeholders who held specific interest and expertise in Talent, Innovation, and Placemaking. It was through their collaborative efforts that the first year of tactical points of execution were established. With recommendations from each subcommittee, the GWPP instituted four prioritization tactics for implementation in 2019 and 2020. Detailed below is a summary of actions that have been implemented in achieving the plan’s strategic goals.
Strategy 1.2.1. Develop a comprehensive new talent attraction website to market the Wausau region as a desirable destination. (www.GreaterWausau.org)
In the fall of 2019, the GWPP launched a regional talent attraction and retention website: GreaterWausau.org. The site has been constructed to serve as a recruitment tool for the region’s businesses and industries and is filled with features — like a local jobs aggregator tool, internship and apprenticeship listings, live cameras, and housing search tools — to be shared with those who are new to the area or considering a move here.
A free, downloadable Employer Toolkit for the site has also been developed to assist hiring professionals in filling positions, including a badge that can be displayed on their company websites to promote local career opportunities.
Today, the GreaterWausau.org site hosts the Ready. Let’s Grow! campaign, an initiative to support businesses and consumers as we emerge from “Safer at Home” guidelines.
Strategy 1.1.2. Support Granite Peak Ski Area in its expansion projects, encourage growth and expansion of its facilities.
In October 2019, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Board directed the department to undertake a holistic evaluation of the full range of recreational and habitat opportunities at Rib Mountain to ensure that the park continues to help support the ecological, social, and economic needs of the area. The DNR entered the process to revise the 2005 master plan for Rib Mountain State Park. The planning process will evaluate the full range of public uses occurring at the park and habitat management opportunities. In addition, options for the future will be assessed, including possibly new recreation activities and the potential expansion of the Granite Peak Ski Area.
The Wisconsin DNR hosted a public meeting (which included approximately 150 attendees) on January 29, 2020, at the D.C. Everest Middle School to present information about the planning process, the park, and the broader region and to gather initial public input. The public open house included stations that offered information about the park and the surrounding landscape and a presentation by DNR Planner John Pohlman.
The DNR will develop draft goals for the park and a set of preliminary alternatives to achieve these goals. To assist with this process, the department intends to contract with experts in downhill skiing and mountain biking to better understand constraints and options for the future.
The DNR had anticipated that the inventory and contractor work would be completed this spring and that the draft goals and alternatives would be presented to the public during the summer of 2020. However, the COVID-19 public health emergency and the resulting Safer at Home requirements, along with associated shifts in work priorities and funding, have delayed the planning process. Fieldwork at the property, essential for both the species and natural community inventories and the development of skiing and mountain biking alternatives, cannot begin until travel restrictions are lifted. The request for proposals cannot be released until funding is secured. The timing for when the fieldwork and the contract work will begin is unknown. Please visit the DNR’s Rib Mountain State Park Master Plan webpage for details and scheduling updates.
Strategies 1.4.2. & 3.1.1. Launch a Business-Driven Innovation Center or Center of Excellence focused on areas of specialized training & research.
In March of 2018, the greater Wausau community became aware that Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) Corporation — the current owners of Clark Island Powerhouse — were in the process of gaining approval permits to raze the building along the Wisconsin River. WPS reasoning was due to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission safety and regulatory restrictions, as well as public safety concerns. WPS has since been awarded the permits to remove the building.
The Clark Island building was the first building to bring hydroelectric power to Wausau, providing the foundation of the economy that serves the region today. Constructed in 1904, the building remained in use as a power plant until 1946. The site was occupied by the Wausau Paper company beginning in 1979, but the building has been vacant since 2008.
There is widespread community support to save the historic district building from demolition and to repurpose the property for the 21st-century economy. The future vision for the Clark Island Powerhouse building is to create a space designed to support innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth within Downtown Wausau.
Today, through advocacy efforts and initial financial investments of the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce (GWCC), the GWPP, and Ghidorzi Companies, the Chamber is working with WPS to establish a long-term (40-year) lease agreement to save and reposition the building as an Industry 4.0 innovation center of excellence that will bring together business, industry, and K–16 education partners to build an innovation ecosystem for the community. It is hoped to have the lease transaction complete by August 2020.
Initiative 3.2. Support the long-term redevelopment options for the Wausau Center Mall.
The Wausau Opportunity Zone, Inc. (WOZ) finalized the purchase of the Wausau Center Mall from Rialto Capital Management on Tuesday, February 4, 2020. The purchase was funded by a pair of local foundations — the Dwight and Linda Davis Foundation and the Judd S. Alexander Foundation — in partnership with the City of Wausau. (WOZ, a for-profit corporation, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Wausau Area Chamber Foundation, Inc.) The Wausau Area Chamber Foundation’s role is to facilitate a public–private partnership whereby the community will benefit by securing and repositioning key real estate in Downtown Wausau.
The GWPP played an important role in engaging business and community leaders, who stepped forward in support, to convey to the members of the Wausau City Council a strong sense of urgency to participate in the purchase and repositioning of the Wausau Center Mall. This was a positive development which allowed for our community to secure an important piece of real estate that is pivotal to the future success of Downtown Wausau. Further plans for the mall will be under consideration in the summer of 2020.
In a short time, what has become very apparent in the development of the Greater Wausau Prosperity Partnership is that the economic development plan not only serves as a strategic and tactical navigation tool, but more importantly, it is an alignment tool for the community. No single organization can build a sustainable competitive community in the 21st-century knowledge economy. It takes many people and it takes organizations like the GWPP to propel communities forward.
The public–private partnership is core to the success of our community. The Wausau region’s business, governmental, and community leaders have rolled up their sleeves, committed their time and resources, and taken the critical first steps toward charting a new path for the region’s economic future.
Stay tuned… There is more to come.
David Eckmann, EdD
President / CEO | Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce
Dr. David Eckmann serves as the President/CEO of the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce. With over 25 years of cumulative experience in business, higher education, workforce development, and economic development, Dave possesses a breadth of knowledge of systems that play a role in building thriving and competitive communities. Dave believes that everyone, during their lifetime, should strive to give back to society in some way. He served in the U.S. Army as Combat Medic spending time in the Sinai Peninsula in the peacekeeping force between Egypt and Israel. Further commitment to service also includes serving as an elected official on Village Government and as a certified volunteer Fire Fighter. Dave has been married for over 30 years to his wife, Pam. They have 2 children, Samantha and Jacob, and 2 Siberian huskies, Nikita and Sparrow. Email David Eckmann.
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