Education, diversity in business, agriculture, and access to good transportation all contribute to the swell of economic development of the 7 Rivers Alliance and Prosperity Southwest regions on the western side of Wisconsin.
“When I saw the water and trees and bluffs and ridges, I thought, ‘I can be very happy here’,” said Lisa Herr, the new executive director of 7 Rivers.
Ron Brisbois, president of Prosperity Southwest, knows just what she means. Trees are one of the area’s greatest natural resources.
“Sometimes you really can’t see the forest for the trees,” Brisbois said. For Prosperity Southwest, hardwood is one of the largest industries. But it’s more than lumber that makes the two economic development councils good neighbors. Herr said collaboration between the two regions works to everyone’s benefit.
“There are 8,000 people who commute across the Mississippi river for work,” Herr said. “We have to look at it from a regional perspective because there are so many people coming and going from La Crescent, MN and Winona, MN to La Crosse to work,” she said.
“We’re seeing a strong interest in collaboration around transportation issues,” she said. “One of the issues is adding another rail line, and there are lots of conversations on both sides of the river. Communities have been coming together about how we deal with transportation.”
Institutions of higher learning can also collaborate with the region’s businesses looking to hire their graduates.
“We just finished a business retention survey of 178 businesses,” Herr said, and one theme was the demand for skilled workers. “Our region is an excellent exporter of human capital. We have five colleges and universities within an hour of each other. If you look at that and the human capital, we’re training it and we’re exporting it. It’s great that we have world-class training and education. But we have a great opportunity to improve and retain those graduates. We need them actively involved in programs, providing internships, and developing relationships early on.”
Brisbois said UW-Platteville is known for its engineering program. “That’s why we have hundreds of businesses coming into their job fair,” he said.
Platteville, with a population of 11,000, is the largest community in his region. Brisbois notes that because they have so many small communities, they also have economic diversity, and that was good during the recent recession.
“We handled the recession quite well because we have food products. The specialty cheese industry was growing. Several of our construction companies survived the recession because of the expansion of the cheese plants.”
Because Organic Valley is headquartered in La Farge and there are organic farmers all over southwest Wisconsin, Brisbois said there is a big focus on organic farming in his region.
“The demand continues to grow,” he said. “With organic farmers, it’s up in the Seven Rivers area, too. There is a concentration here. Because of the hills, we don’t have large, massive farms. The geography, as much as anything, has dictated the organic movement.”
Those hills are also covered in trees, which is the other big natural resource for Prosperity Southwest.
“What we’re working on right now is exporting hardwood to the Far East. Red oak and walnut are prime for furniture making, and they are concentrated in southwest Wisconsin,” Brisbois said. “We do have a lot of hardwood and lumber companies, so we’ve contracted with the Japanese, who are marketing our products.”
Herr said a great opportunity for collaboration with Prosperity Southwest would be historic tourism. There is plenty of history on this side of the state, she said, and the regions need to capitalize on that.
That can happen simply by sharing ideas, Herr said. She cites tiny little Lanesboro, Minnesota, a nearby powerhouse of tourism. “The goal is to bring in best practices. With each community, learn about their efforts and opportunities,” she said. “All the resources and ingredients are here. That’s what gets me excited. I’ve never been in a region that has such a high level of collaboration.”
7 Rivers Alliance
400 7th Street North, La Crosse, WI 54601
■ La Crosse
Food manufacturing, fabricated metal product manufacturing, lumber, animal production and aquaculture, machinery manufacturing, agriculture, manufacturing composites, truck transportation, hospitality, health care, education services
Gundersen Health System, Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare, The Trane Co., University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, CenturyTel Service Group, City of La Crosse, Logistics Health Inc., Western Technical College, APAC Customer Services Inc., Chart Energy & Chemicals Inc.
295,000 (Wisconsin); 421,000 (Region total including Iowa and Minnesota counties)
Colleges and universities:
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Winona State University, Viterbo University Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, Luther College, Western Technical College, Globe University, Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical College
Fennimore, WI 53809
Lumber, agriculture, agriculture equipment, cheese manufacturing
3M, Rayovac, S&S Cycle, Bemis, Rockwell Automation, Nu-Pak
Colleges and universities:
UW-Platteville, UW-Richland Center, Southwest Wisconsin Technical College-Fennimore, Blackhawk Technical College