Nearly the midpoint between Milwaukee and Chicago, along the I-94 corridor, is Kenosha: a vibrantly growing Wisconsin community with a strong manufacturing history on a journey of reinvention.
With its prime location on the western shore of Lake Michigan and convenient access to railway lines, Kenosha was a sought-after location for manufacturing in the 19th and 20th centuries. Workers flocked to find employment in factories producing iron beds, wagons and eventually automobiles, which boosted the community’s economy with auto and engine plants until 2010, when Chrysler closed its engine production line.
The downturn of manufacturing in the United States greatly affected many Midwestern cities, including Kenosha. The legacy of industrialization was being outsourced and former hardworking plant workers found themselves out of a job that sustained families in prior decades. Reinvention was necessary for survival.
Todd Battle, president of the Kenosha Area Business Alliance, believes in Kenosha’s renaissance.
“Kenosha used to be a heavy manufacturing community and deindustrialization hit us hard,” he said. “However, we are a resilient community.”
With both population and economic sprawl, Kenosha is now a community of nearly 100,000. But according to 2016 KABA study “The Kenosha County Out-Commuter Survey,” of the nearly 78,000 employed Kenosha residents, 45 percent, or nearly 35,000, commute out of the county for work.
“This was not a surprising or a new stat,” Battle said. “A lot of circumstances need to be considered with this number. We are somewhat of a bedroom community since we are in between two large commerce centers.”
With the Chicago area hosting 33 Fortune 500 companies and the Milwaukee area featuring nine, opportunities for growth are attractive and more abundant in cities with these kinds of numbers for job seekers.
However, Kenosha has seen some of southeastern Wisconsin’s most significant business and job development in recent years, including major projects by Amazon.com Inc., Uline Inc. and Kenall Manufacturing Co., plus a planned facility for Haribo USA.
And then there is the potential to woo suppliers for the highly anticipated Foxconn Technology Group development in Kenosha’s neighboring county, Racine.
“We are a prime location for future supplier business and are happy to work with suppliers and distributors on future opportunities,” Battle said.
Just as Kenosha’s economy benefitted from its proximity to transportation outlets for shipping in the 19th and 20th centuries, the same holds true for the 21st century; and businesses are seeing Kenosha as a major distribution hub.
But with 45 percent of its working residents commuting out of the county for work, there are opportunities for businesses to relocate to Kenosha to tap into a ready-made workforce that may prefer to work closer to home.
Kenosha’s well-established economic hubs, business-friendly and experienced civic leaders, and welcoming tax policy are a combination that continues to attract new development and spur expansion of existing developments.
“Since the Chrysler plant closed, we made the conscious choice to diversify our economic strategy and industry base for the community,” Battle said. “Instead of relying on one industry (automotive) to support our community, we have branched out into multiple areas, such as medical, plastics and LED manufacturers. We are more insulated from any one company employing a majority our of community’s workforce. It affords a much healthier outlook in the long run.”
And if you’re looking for another reason Kenosha is an attractive business center, just ask those 45 percent of commuters in the KABA survey. When asked if they would consider taking a comparable job closer to home to cut down on their commute time and increase their quality of life, a majority said “yes.”
“We hear it all the time from companies that relocate here: Kenosha is a welcoming community not only for business development, but also for workforce development,” Battle said. “The people of Kenosha have a great work ethic and the employers who come here reap the benefits of our conscientious and caring attitude.”
Industry: Fortune 50 online retailer
Project: 1.5 million-square-foot fulfillment and sortation center
Investment: $300 million+
Haribo USA Inc.
Industry: Germany-based confectionery company
Project: Planned 500,000-square-foot advanced manufacturing facility
Investment: $242 million
Industry: Shipping, industrial and packaging material distributor
Project: Two 1 million-square-foot distribution centers, and two 250,000-square-foot headquarters office buildings.
Jobs: about 1,000
Investment: $175 million
Kenall Manufacturing Co.
Industry: LED lighting manufacturer
Project: 354,000-square-foot headquarters & advanced manufacturing facility
Investment: $30 million