Fueled by its proximity to Chicago, vacant parcels of land, aggressive economic development initiatives and an engaged collegiate community, Kenosha County is making great strides in its rebound from the Great Recession.
The big automotive makers are gone, but Kenosha County has become a magnet for other businesses.
Wispark LLC’s LakeView Corporate Park in Pleasant Prairie and other areas in Kenosha County in recent years have attracted several business operations from Illinois, including Uline Inc., Catalyst Exhibits, Mondi Akrosil LLC, Emco Chemical Distributors Inc., Brightree LLC, Coleman Cable Inc. and Hospira Inc. Lower costs in Wisconsin and a lack of land for new industrial development in Chicago’s northern suburbs have helped attract companies to move to Kenosha County.
Other well-known companies with a presence in Kenosha County include Jelly Belly, Yamaha, Rust-Oleum, Volkswagen, Snap-On Inc. and Jockey International Inc.
Perhaps the largest economic victory for Kenosha County in recent years occurred last year when Uline moved its headquarters and about 700 employees from Illinois to a new 200,000-square-foot office building and 1 million-square-foot distribution center in Pleasant Prairie.
During the 1960s, southeastern Wisconsin had one of the highest per capita income levels in the country, and Kenosha County was a major part of that thriving region. The steering wheel, the seat belt and even the muscle car were innovations that came from Kenosha’s car-making heritage. Nash, American Motors, Renault and Chrysler cars were made in Kenosha. Other manufacturers, including American Brass Company and Snap-On Tools, further bolstered Kenosha County’s strong industrial heritage.
However, in the 1980s, the economy in Kenosha County began to change dramatically. As more consumers bought imported vehicles, the Chrysler lakefront auto manufacturing plant (previously an American Motors plant) in Kenosha closed in 1988. More than 5,000 people lost their jobs when the plant closed.
“The city hit bottom in ’88,” former Kenosha mayor John Antaramian said. “Everyone thought that was it. How could this region come back from such a devastating blow? But the community did. The Kenosha region is a very strong-willed community.”
The Kenosha Area Business Alliance (KABA), an organization focused on attracting businesses and jobs to the Kenosha area, has played a significant role in the redevelopment of the region since the 1980s, particularly following the closing of the lakeside auto plant.
“Prior to me becoming mayor in 1992, a group of business owners came together to form an organization dedicated to moving things forward,” said Antaramian. “That group of individuals was very involved in getting the community involved. It was definitely a partnership and it continues to be that way today.”
Today, KABA has close relationships with the City of Kenosha, the Village of Pleasant Prairie, Kenosha County, Wispark LLC and educational institutions, including Gateway Technical College, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and Carthage College.
KABA is a public private partnership focused on making the Kenosha region a great place to live, work and do business, said Todd Battle, executive director of the organization.
“At the core, our fundamental mission hasn’t changed a whole lot. Our goal is to diversify the economy, grow the tax base and generate employment opportunities for the community,” Battle said. “It’s important to remember history. The community was on the verge of economic devastation. When (Chrysler) closed its (lakefront) plant, more than 5,000 people got pink slips. They were no longer able to support a family or pay their mortgages.”
The leaders of KABA came up with an aggressive strategy to reinvent the city, Battle said.
“They started looking forward and forming partnerships that would help the region take advantage of its geographic location,” Battle said. “We partnered with other agencies at the state and local level and took advantage of our skilled and available workforce to get business to move to the region.”
Kenosha’s geographic location is still a solid sell for businesses, Battle said. The Kenosha area is 60 minutes from Chicago and 35 minutes from Milwaukee. The county provides easy access to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee.
Kenosha has good schools, affordable housing and the added benefit of the beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline, Battle said.
“The same benefits of the region that are helping us thrive during the current economic climate are the same characteristics that were so important in rebuilding the region during the late 1980s and early 1990s,” Battle said. “Once you add up all the factors, the quality of life here is hard to argue with.”
The last remaining evidence of Kenosha’s car-making heritage, the Kenosha Chrysler Engine Plant, closed in 2010, putting more than 500 people out of work. Federal, state and Kenosha officials recently announced an agreement to prepare the site for redevelopment, a similar process the region went through with the former American Motors Company and Chrysler property on the lakefront.
The former Kenosha Engine plant is situated on a 109-acre site in the middle of the city. The property is owned by Old Carco Liquidation Trust, which was created during the Chrysler bankruptcy proc
ess to dispose of several Chrysler properties and then wind down. Under the agreement, Old Carco will sell the equipment at the plant and then will be responsible for demolishing the plant, said Kenosha city administrator Frank Pacetti. Only concrete slabs will be left in place. Then Old Carco will abandon the property, and it will be turned over to the city of Kenosha. The federal government will provide $10 million to pay for removal of contamination from the site, Pacetti said.
Ultimately, the city intends to sell the site for redevelopment.
It will take years to attract new development to the site. City officials are hopeful the redevelopment will be as successful as their efforts to redevelop the lakefront auto plant site, which is now revitalized with residential development, museums and green space.
“It’s just the way this community is,” Antaramian said. “It’s a tough community that doesn’t give up for anything. It comes back to the people; what they believe and how they feel about the community. They don’t give up for anything; nothing is going to stop this community from coming back again and coming back even stronger. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Education is key
Despite the progress in attracting businesses, Kenosha County still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the Midwest. The county had a 9.3 percent unemployment rate in August, and the city of Kenosha had a 10.5 percent unemployment rate, well above the state’s 7.9 percent unemployment rate for that month.
The problem, some say, is that many Kenosha workers need to be retrained to acquire the skills necessary to get a job in today’s economy. The colleges in Kenosha County are working to tackle the labor skills problem and are participating in other economic development efforts.
“People have identified this issue as a skills-gap,” Battle said. “We’re hovering around a 9 percent unemployment rate, but we can’t assume it’s a qualified workforce or that everybody out there possesses the necessary knowledge to understand aluminum die casting or another industrialized skill.”
Increasing the labor force’s skill level is crucial to improve the area’s economy and attract more businesses, Battle said.
“We all know that the talent pipeline you have is critical for the success of the region. The companies here put stock in it,” he said.
At UW-Parkside, Carthage College and Gateway Technical College, more than 13,000 students are being educated as the potential future workforce of the region, Battle said.
“Having (these institutions) here is a huge advantage to the region, and in my opinion, the educational institutions here are more in tune with the economic climate of the region than other areas. They are very aggressive, responsive and nimble with respect to trying to be responsive to what the business community and labor market of the region needs from them.” he said.
UW-Parkside is working collectively with KABA as well as the Gateway Technical College and Carthage College to address the skills gap, said Deborah Ford, chancellor of UW-Parkside. Also, Battle said, some strategic initiatives for accelerated programming is being discussed with Gateway Technical College.
“It’s preliminary right now, but we have had discussions with leaders at Gateway Technical College about doing an accelerated 12- to 16-week program that would allow students to learn the basic skills to be employable in a boot camp-like environment, Battle said.
“We know there are a lot of people out there who need jobs, but employers who need talent now can’t wait two years for that person to get a full associate’s degree,” Battle said. “It’s being done on a small scale right now, but we expect that program to accelerate and expand in the future.”
“The three of us, (UW-Parkside, Carthage College and Gateway Technical College) have partnered and collaborated to raise the educational attainment for the region,” Ford said. “We are preparing for the workforce needs of the future.”
It is regular practice for Ford to meet with other campus officials to discuss the early needs of the business community in the region and the labor forecast as new needs emerge.
“We expect those partnerships to continue to accelerate going forward,” Ford said. “As we continue to live out our mission here at the university to grow people, grow jobs and grow the community, we want to be seen as a strategic partner for businesses and the community that can contribute to continued growth and added quality of life in the region.”
F. Gregory Campbell, president of Carthage College, who recently announced his plan to retire, played an important role in the redevelopment of the community following the closing of the lakefront auto plant in 1988, said Antaramian.
“We asked Dr. Campbell and Carthage College to help guide the city and design a situation where we could keep the public informed on what we wanted to do with the vacated property,” Antaramian said. “We created some innovative ways of communication, and when the $24 million project initially came to vote, we had almost total buy-in from the community.”
The educational institutions in the region play an even greater role in the economic development of the region today, he said.
“Having high quality educational institutions in your community plays a pivotal role in the quality of life here,” Antaramian said. “They are very positive and a good breeding ground for entrepreneurs and do wonderful things to engage the community and educate future workers here.”
Ford is a force
Ford is a member of the KABA board of directors as well as the boards of Racine Area Manufacturing and Commerce, the Racine County Economic Development Corp., the Racine County Workforce Development Center, the Kenosha County Workforce Development Center, and also attends meetings of the Milwaukee 7 on a regular basis.
“Even before I came to UW-Parkside, I knew this was an opportunity worth noting,” Ford said. “To be a part of a world-class system of higher education and have the opportunity to grow people, grow jobs and help grow this community was something I knew I wanted to be a part of.”
Ford said she was drawn to the university because of its hallmarks: academic excellence, student success, diversity inclusiveness and community engagement.
“Parkside was founded because of the community in southeastern Wisconsin,” Ford said. “It’s our heritage, and it’s my responsibility as chancellor to help make sure that the university is responding to the needs of the community in every way we can.”
Ford’s said Parkside’s future is intertwined with the future of the community surrounding the campus.
“Usually, the only way I miss one of those meetings is if I’m traveling,” she said. “It’s part of our growth agenda. Any opportunity we have to develop talent for the employers in our community is critical for the region’s success, and the only way we can truly know what they need is to participate in the conversation.”
UW-Parkside students and faculty work side-by-side with the business community in a variety of ways, Ford said. More than 130 businesses and organizations in southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois provide internships to UW-Parkside students through the Center for Community Partnerships and the Ralph Jaeschke Solutions for Economic Growth Center, she said.
“We take an integrated approach to student success and strive to bring real-world solutions into the classroom,” Ford said. “That type of real-life learning is a win-win for the businesses and the students, many of whom choose to remain in the region after graduation.”
The university also is completing a state-funded $34 million expansion and renovation project for its Rita Tallent Pickens Regional Center for Arts and Humanities. The project includes additional classroom space for the music department, a 340-seat concert hall and an expanded area for the theater department, including a new black box theater, practice rooms, a scene shop and three gallery spaces for community artists and students, Ford said. More than 200 events are scheduled in the facility for 2012, The Year of Arts and Humanities at UW-Parkside, Ford said.
“Not only does the new center transform our learning environment for students, we’ve also been very specific about engaging and being a destination for the community,” Ford said. “The new center is a robust part of the creative economy.”