WEDC: People, Place and Passion

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A public art installation on Third Street, Wausau | Photo:Wausau River District

Last updated on July 19th, 2019 at 12:20 pm

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Behind every innovation are people working from a place that inspires them to pursue their passion. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) is proud to recognize the many visionaries throughout our state who are boldly imagining a more innovative future.

BELOIT’S IRONWORKS CAMPUS SPURS COMMUNITY-DRIVEN INNOVATION

In the heart of downtown Beloit, you will find the Ironworks Campus, an emerging tech hub. Until 1999, the campus was a manufacturing plant, but today it has been reimagined as a technology hub that houses more than 40 companies, including the headquarters for Hendricks Commercial Properties as well as offices for tech companies like Ebates, FatWallet, Comply365 and Acculynx.

The campus is also home to Irontek, a collaborative and dynamic coworking space for small businesses, startups and entrepreneurs. Talktor, the maker of a smart-home health care assistant product founded in Beloit, has made Irontek its home. “I wouldn’t have been able to start my business if it wasn’t for Irontek and this community,” says Walker Lillard, CEO of Talktor. “People here are given the resources to go out and do what they want to do and make a living.”

As a business grows, it can first expand within the Irontek space, and then beyond it to a larger space elsewhere in the Ironworks Campus—as Ebates, a cash back and shopping rewards company, has done.

A MANUFACTURING COMMUNITY’S REMARKABLE TRANSFORMATION

Since 1999, the Ironworks Campus has flourished thanks to strong collaboration among local and state partners including Hendricks Commercial Properties, WEDC and the City of Beloit.

“You have people here who are willing to help and to be a part of your success,” says Rob Gerbitz, president and CEO of Henricks Commercial Properties. “It’s the most collaborative community I’ve ever been a part of in my career.”

The increase in locally based startups is happening with the help of an ongoing, focused effort by the state and the community to encourage companies to start, and stay, in Beloit. This includes supporting everything from coworking spaces to pitch competitions, which connect founders to a network of community support and mentorship as well as potential funding sources.

“I’ve seen companies move from Illinois to Beloit to grow their businesses for multitudes of reasons,” says Gerbitz. “The city itself is a dynamic, pro-business city and is investing to grow this community.”

The efforts of Hendricks Commercial Properties to develop the Ironworks Campus have been a cornerstone of Beloit’s long-term downtown redevelopment strategy, making an impact that starts in the downtown area with a ripple effect throughout the surrounding community.

EAU CLAIRE HAS A WORD FOR PRODUCTIVE COLLABORATION: CONFLUENCE

Reflecting on the trajectory of Eau Claire’s downtown development, Volume One Publisher Nick Meyer relates, “The city’s cultural and community energy was primed, and the public sector was ready. Royal Credit Union provided the spark.” Meyer is referring to the financial institution’s decision to build a new headquarters in downtown Eau Claire in 2005. That investment along with the nearby Phoenix Park development helped establish a permanent and picturesque setting for Eau Claire’s Downtown Farmers Market while also providing a scenic riverfront venue for a burgeoning music and arts scene.

New attention to the city’s neglected downtown helped a dedicated group of community boosters achieve alignment among developers and city, county, state, university and philanthropic stakeholders to construct the Confluence Center, an $85 million, 150,000-square-foot arts center featuring mixed-use retail space and adjacent housing for 400 University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students 10 years later.

Meanwhile, redevelopment of such landmark downtown Eau Claire properties as the Lismore and Oxbow hotels —the latter of which drew investment from Bon Iver frontman and Eau Claire native Justin Vernon—added to the area’s allure for both visitors and young residents craving the social infrastructure usually found in larger cities.

OPTIMISM FUELED BY OPPORTUNITY

These developments played a significant role in Jamf Software co-founder Zach Halmstad’s decision to build a 74,000-square-foot office in downtown Eau Claire in 2014 to accommodate the company’s growing workforce. Jamf is well known as a career destination for young, creative workers who seek exciting cultural amenities to balance their work life.

While Meyer credits big players like Royal Credit Union and Jamf as important and necessary to achieve the density required to attract additional business investment, he also gives a nod to the smaller coffee shops, bookstores and recording studios that help create a vibe that draws and keeps young people engaged with their community. It’s one of the reasons Volume One was established in 2002, according to Meyer—to tell the stories that “slipped through the cracks” of local news coverage. “We paid attention to people making cool things happen in the Eau Claire area,” he says, referring to the role of content creation in helping define the character of a place.

As a result of its own intentional community development efforts and the national attention the city is drawing for its arts scene and exceptional quality of life, Eau Claire’s attitude toward itself is completely different than it was 10 years ago, notes Meyer. Scott Rogers, government affairs and workforce director for the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees: “Eau Claire is a community that has realized its attributes and is beginning to take advantage of them,” he says.

Both Meyer and Rogers stress the work yet to be done to realize Eau Claire’s full potential, and each conveys a sense of optimism fueled by opportunity—which itself is one of the city’s primary value propositions. Notes Meyer: “Bigger cities feel kind of finished. Everything’s figured out. We’re still figuring it out. Lots of ideas are up for grabs.”

FROM THE ASHES, SHERMAN PHOENIX REGENERATES TO SPUR A NEW ECOSYSTEM

The Sherman Phoenix, a community-driven entrepreneurial and wellness hub in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood, is more than just a startup incubator—it’s a symbol of hope for a neighborhood that was still recovering from civil unrest in August 2016, when the BMO Harris Bank building was severely damaged by fire. Today, in the former bank building, the Sherman Phoenix houses small businesses—most owned by people of color—offering prepared foods, wellness services, and arts and cultural activities, along with a food hall, patio and community gathering spaces.

Co-developers Juli Kaufmann and JoAnne Sabir explain that the project not only gives local entrepreneurs an affordable space to launch and grow their businesses, but also plays a key role in rebuilding the neighborhood. “Our goal is to build local wealth and circulate that wealth, so that we’re not only raising up businesses, they are raising up employees and together we’re creating paychecks,” says Kaufmann. “The bottom line is that we’re circulating wealth in Sherman Park, and that wealth stays here.

“That is how we change the trajectory of this community and many like it, so that in all of Wisconsin and all of Milwaukee, communities like this can rise up,” she adds. “That’s the story of the Sherman Phoenix.”

COMMUNITY WITH A CAUSE

By offering support through mentorship, business coaching and networking, the Sherman Phoenix is helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses, generate jobs and contribute to the economic growth of the community.

Redeveloping the 20,000-square-foot, 90-year-old building is a massive—and costly—undertaking, but thanks to support from the public and private sectors, Sabir and Kaufmann have raised over $2.5 million for the project. More than 100 people have contributed through an online crowdfunding campaign, and the Sherman Phoenix has received a $250,000 grant from WEDC and $215,000 from the City of Milwaukee.

This project showcases the community’s strengths of diversity and entrepreneurial initiative, and also exemplifies the support that exists for community economic development initiatives in Milwaukee.

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