(Janesville, WI) - By Jim Leute, Gazette
Mary Willmer and Diane Hendricks believe they had a pretty good read on Rock County in the summer of 2009.
The last of the General Motors employees had been shooed from the plant in Janesville, and the local auto industry's suppliers were long gone.
While the Great Recession had “officially” ended a couple of months earlier, the local economy was tanking and foreclosures were skyrocketing.
“The community was afraid, desperate, depressed, wondering what tomorrow was going to bring,” said Hendricks, chairman of the Beloit-based ABC Supply.
In October 2009, Hendricks and Willmer stepped up to lead the newly hatched Rock County 5.0, an initiative designed to foster collaboration, communication and economic development connections in Rock County.
“Diane and I didn't know what to expect,” said Willmer, community bank president and regional market manager at BMO Harris Bank. “I think we were both feeling afraid at the same time because the projections for recovery were very gloomy.
“When you go from being so dependent on a key employer in a county and then not only have that employer leave but have the whole economy go in the dump, you get hit twice.”
Rock County 5.0 is four years into its five-year mission, and whether it continues beyond next year is yet to be determined.
Organizers and observers say accomplishments of the local initiative have been significant.
Paul Jadin has seen his share of economic development organizations and initiatives.
Jadin is president of MadREP, a regional economic development group that encompasses Rock County. He previously served as both secretary of the state Department of Commerce and its successor, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. His resume also includes leadership of the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and two terms as that city's mayor.
“As part of the economic development community, Rock 5.0 is certainly in the top tier in the state, particularly because of their focus and strategic plan,” Jadin said. “They've got a very capable team and board members, and Mary and Diane have done an outstanding job.”
Jeff Helgesen is a local developer who has built and filled several properties.
After a GM supplier vacated one of his properties, Helgesen spent millions of dollars to renovate the building, which is now fully leased.
“The organization and leadership have been fantastic,” Helgesen said of Rock County 5.0. “The first objective was to facilitate a re-absorbtion of vacant buildings, and they've had success beyond our wildest dreams.”
Perhaps more than the outcome of any one particular initiative, Willmer and Hendricks are most pleased with the teamwork that's taken place in Rock County in the last four years.
Willmer is reminded of that when people talk to her about the local economy and the opportunities it presents.
“All we did was a create model that we felt would really work in this community,” she said. “We didn't do anything; the community did it.
“The developers in the community, the business people who made the commitment to stay here and expand and grow their businesses and not leave, they did it.”
Communities now work together, not apart, she said, noting that if a project is aimed at Beloit, Janesville isn't trying to take it away.
Willmer also serves on the board of MadREP. Through a combination of that and her business travels, she's been told more than once that Rock County 5.0 is a model for economic development.
“We've accomplished what most of the other regions have not been able to do, and that's get all the partners to share information and work together,” she said. “… When it's all said and done, it doesn't matter where something lands, as long as it's in Rock County.
“That's a dramatic change, and it didn't come over night.”
Hendricks said it boils down to awareness and leadership in all corners of the county.
“All we were was a face that put together an advisory team, an economic development team and a positive plan,” she said. “Then we worked together and we got stronger as a community.
“There have been some small struggles, but when you look over the realm of the last four years and where people are today, it's amazing.”
Jadin said that at least half of the economic development organizations in the country were born out of crisis.
That includes Rock County 5.0.
“Madison and Dane County have never had a crisis, or at least one they would own up to,” Jadin said. “They think everything is always rosy and will continue to be rosy.
“In Rock County, they knew they needed each other.”
Rock County 5.0 was launched as a five-year program.
It's funding—about $1.4 million—came from the private sector and didn't divert a dime toward salaries, Willmer said.
The group provided significant firepower for the Rock County Development Alliance, an economic development partnership that had been marketing and promoting Rock County on a budget that averaged about $10,000 a year.
Will Rock County 5.0 continue beyond its five-year run?
If they know it now, neither Willmer nor Hendricks is saying.
“The table is set, and the team is outstanding,” Willmer said. “Do we necessarily need Rock 5.0 to drive that? Maybe not, and we'll decide that over the next couple of months.
“We've changed the way, collectively, we do business, and we've provided resources. That was the goal.”
Hendricks said solutions take time, particularly when the issues were as pressing as those that befell Rock County.
What must continue, she said, is community leadership and engagement from the business community.
“You're always going to need leadership,” she said. “Every cause, every business, everything that's successful needs to have leadership and direction and a strategy."
Willmer hopes that in another five years, no one will think about Rock County 5.0 because the economy is thriving.
Helgesen said the model must continue. He said there's a role for the organization in pulling together investors and developers on projects that could result in needed manufacturing jobs.
Jadin agreed: “That's all you can ask of an economic development agency: create the tools and resources so you're ready when opportunities present themselves, as well as dealing with potential threats.
“That's what Rock 5.0 has done.”
LEADERS ASSESS GOALS, RESULTS
Rock County 5.0 formed with a strategic focus on five areas: business retention and expansion, new business attraction, small business and entrepreneurship, real estate positioning and workforce profiling.
Mary Willmer and Diane Hendricks, co-chairs of the organization's advisory council, recently reviewed each.
Rock County 5.0's leaders are proud of the organization's role in helping local businesses grow.
Since Jan. 1, 2010, more than 50 private-sector development projects have been announced or completed. Taken together, they represent a capital investment of nearly $730 million, use more than 3 million square feet of existing or new space and are expected to have created 2,200 new jobs.
The local commercial real estate market has reached a point where the inventory of available buildings is low, and developers are thinking about putting up buildings on speculation.
“The businesses that committed to staying here and expanding here have been phenomenal,” Willmer said. “These are businesses that had multiple choices.
“They weighed out the pros and cons, and in the end we were very lucky to have them stay here.”
Willmer and Hendricks credit local governments with a new found commitment to work with businesses on creative solutions to issues that could have forced the companies to expand elsewhere.
“City councils didn't close the door or put up too many barriers,” Hendricks said. “We've seen numerous times where councils took some risk, and I applaud them.
“You're not always guaranteed success; sometimes you have to stick your neck out there.”
When it comes to attracting new businesses to the area, Willmer said there's work to do.
Rock County and other areas in the state still are dealing with the political perception of Wisconsin, she said.
“We went through some very challenging times in Wisconsin that impacted us in attracting businesses here,” Willmer said. “The media portrayed a vision of what Wisconsin looked like, and that kind of caused our recruitment opportunities to grind to a screeching halt.”
Hendricks said two or three companies have moved from Illinois to Beloit, but “Wisconsin is still a difficult state in the Midwest. There are other states that are taking some business away from Wisconsin, and that will always be the case.”
With mixed results, Rock County 5.0 has been involved in a number of initiatives to foster small business development and entrepreneurship.
Three years ago, the group awarded Local Vision TV a prize package worth $25,000 in a business plan contest.
Local Vision, however, went out of business earlier this year.
“For a lot of small businesses, the deck is stacked against them, and the one that hit us the hardest recently was Local Vision,” Willmer said. “… We see our jobs as continuing to provide tools, resources and education because the reality is that small business is what drives this economy.”
On the flip side, Willmer and Hendricks said the Janesville Innovation Center on the city's south side should help young businesses get their bearings.
Willmer and Hendricks feel good about the group's efforts.
The county has four certified, shovel-ready sites and an online suite of services that can help businesses put up buildings and begin operating in short order.
The sites, however, sit empty.
“Most of our commercial space has been utilized,” Willmer said. “Our challenge right now is to get more space for businesses to come in and grab hold of quickly and move in.
“The shovel-ready sites are ready to go, and that's the good news. The work's been done, they're there, and they're in great locations, but the reality is that a lot of businesses right now just want to move in, turn on the lights on and go.”
On workforce profiling and development, Rock County 5.0 has put together reams of real-time data, thanks in large part to the local businesses that agreed to share their information.
The organization has been heavily involved in “Inspire Wisconsin Rock County,” a web-based career and readiness platform that's a pilot program in Rock County.
Anchored by an approved academic or career plan, the platform provides a direct link between employers and future employees. The platform leverages career development tools, social media and workforce data into a seamless system for job creators, students, educators and parents.
“Since Day One, we heard, 'We've got all these workers. We need to get them jobs,'” Willmer said. “Then jobs started to come in, and then it was, 'We've got all these workers, and they don't necessarily fit the job.'
“Then we got to the point that now we've got jobs, but we don't have enough workers in certain areas. Inspire Wisconsin Rock County will allow us to first and foremost educate students, parents and educators on the jobs, positions and careers that are available in this area.”
With a lack of qualified workers, local businesses have started to accept more of a role in on-the-job training, Hendricks said.
“Often, businesses do it because there's nothing else to do, but we're finding out it works,” she said. “Bring them in and start training them.
“We're starting to create our own workforce. It would be nice if we had a line of people trained, but we don't.”