Looking at a map of the United States, Wisconsin doesn’t jump out as a transportation and logistics hot spot, but appearances can be deceiving. Even though it’s bordered by two Great Lakes, the Badger State is well-known throughout the country for its strong ground transportation companies and their ability to get products quickly to customers.
The word is definitely getting out: internet giant Amazon, super-sized discount grocer Meijer, Rust-O-Leum, Gordon Food Service, Uline, Affiliated Foods and others are opening distribution centers in southeastern Wisconsin, concentrated around the I-94 corridor near the Illinois border.
Amazon has opened its first 500,000-square-foot facility already, with an additional 1 million square-feet opening soon. In all, almost 5 million square-feet of distribution space is operating, planned or under construction, with an estimated 2,500 jobs to be created or retained, according to Heather Wessling Grosz, vice president of economic development with the Kenosha Area Business Alliance.
Grosz said logistics companies locating in Kenosha County is nothing new. “Chicago is a huge market for logistics, and we’re a sub-market. For many companies, we’re a low-cost alternative,” she said. “We have lower taxes, lower cost-per-square-foot, and it’s easy access to I-94 without so much traffic.”
Transportation: built on history and hard work
Proximity to Chicago’s rail hub and the state’s strong highway network have both been essential in attracting companies, said Tom Vandenberg, general counsel for Schneider National in Green Bay.
“Amazon was looking to be within a one-day drive to most of its customers, and being in Kenosha puts them in good reach of the Chicago, Milwaukee and Twin Cities’ markets,” he said. “Wisconsin also has a strong work ethic and positive business climate.”
Vandenberg should know. Schneider National is a national leader in the transportation industry, taking full advantage of Wisconsin highways and the railways. Manufacturing gave birth to its strong transportation industry, he added.
“We always had a strong work ethic and manufacturing base, with lots of factories that needed raw materials brought in and finished products taken out,” Vandenberg said. “Transportation entrepreneurs were able to then grow their business here.”
Construction along I-94 in recent years between Kenosha and Milwaukee only makes the area more attractive to logistic companies, Grosz said. “These improvements make getting around so much easier.”
Vandenberg agreed, adding the state’s highway system – which includes not only I-94, but also I-90, I-43 and I-39 – is well developed, making it easier to get products across the state. Highway 41 between Milwaukee and Green Bay is in the process of becoming an interstate, too.
The many railroad tracks crossing the state also help get products from Point A to Point B, Vandenberg said.
“Transportation companies can’t work in a vacuum. We work with other carriers and railways to make sure customers can get their products to their destinations,” Vandenberg said. “We put in three million miles every day on the rails, as we put our trailers on rail cars and then get them to where they are put on trucks.”
At the other end of the state – just off I-94 near the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, logistics businesses are also setting up shop, said Steve Jahn, executive director of Momentum West, an economic development group in western Wisconsin. United Foods International, for example, is building a $37.8 million logistics facility in Prescott.