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(Beloit, WI) By Shaun Zinck, Beloit Daily News 

Three and a half years after its formation was announced, Rock County 5.0 is well into the final two years of its five-year plan.

Over the last few years leaders have conducted new marketing campaigns in order to change the outside view of Rock County, aimed at attracting new businesses to the area.

The idea was proposed in fall 2009, but officially began in January 2010 with a $1 million investment from both private and public sources.

In July 2012 city councilors from Beloit and Janesville met to talk about different ways the cities could collaborate to save taxpayer money. During the meeting, James Otterstein, director of the Rock County Economic Development, said the Rock County 5.0 initiative planned on expanding advertising in major trade publications and in Chicago.

Today, Otterstein said the outreach effort continues and serves mainly to reinforce the idea that Rock County has a stable business climate. He said the campaign continues to be successful.

Website traffic on www.rockcounty5.com as well as email contacts have risen since the marketing campaign started, he said.

“The number of direct contacts and the quality of those communications is substantially different than prior to the campaign,” he said. “Plus, the word-of-mouth connections must be working too, as we’re hearing from new folks and establishing new contacts each month.”

Since January 2010, Otterstein said about 48 private sector development projects have started or been announced, 2,177 new jobs were created, 1.5 million square feet of construction has taken place, and 1.7 million square feet of land has been leased or sold in Rock County.

Most of the projects have been in Janesville, but Beloit has seen a few projects announced during that time. The NorthStar Radioisotope facility was announced in July 2011, but production changes have delayed a construction start. Likewise, Apara Care’s Cherry Tree Assisted Living Facility, announced last year, has yet to begin construction. The NorthStar and Apara Care projects are among the 48 developments Otterstein cited, as well as the Kerry Ingredients and Flavours project in Beloit and the Beloit Health System Cancer Treatment Center, now under construction.

Andrew Janke, executive director for the Greater Beloit Economic Development Corporation, said the city hasn’t seen a deal come to Beloit as a result of the marketing campaign, but believes the relationship with Rock County 5.0 has been very valuable.

“We’ve been able to raise the cash to deploy in our marketing campaign,” he said. “We would have never had those resources if we weren’t working together.”

Rock County 5.0 co-chair Mary Willmer said she believes the initiative has accomplished more than she would have predicted. Willmer, central regional premier services manager for BMO Harris Bank, said the first year was spent “breaking down barriers” between the county communities to work together as one group.

“That in itself was a very positive accomplishment,” she said. “The way that our group works together now, sharing resources, focusing on providing our communities with unified support is far different than three or four years ago.”

Willmer said right now the group is looking to improve training and education of the workforce so training matches the jobs that are available now or those that will be created in the future.

“Economic development is not something that ‘starts and finishes’ but is a continuum of growth,” she said. “We are excited for the direction that our county is going and Rock County 5.0 has been the catalyst to this process.”

Despite the positive outlook, Otterstein said the economy has had a significant impact on all economic development. However, it has started to swing in the right direction.

“While the anemic or sluggish national and state economy has certainly impacted things overall, the county’s economic recovery and revitalization has been quicker than many observers would have forecasted,” he said. “Rewind to 2008 and 2009, most of the county’s economic indicators were either heading or already grounded in the wrong direction.”

Today, indicators such as unemployment, real estate activity and sales tax collection are all moving in the right direction, he said.

Unemployment in the county has lowered from just under 13 percent in 2009 to under 9 percent in 2013. The rate is still higher than the state and national average, which are both under 8 percent, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

Sales tax collection rose to more than $2.5 million in the first quarter, but has dipped below that number for the second quarter, according to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.

“Economic development is an extremely difficult activity to box score, as there are a host of externally controlled variables that factor heavily into investment and business related decisions,” Otterstein said. “Moreover, the level of preparation and positioning required for a community or county to be considered competitive is not something that happens overnight.”

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