Whitewater’s location, amenities favored by employers
Location, location, location.
Businesses and home owners are looking for it. The City of Whitewater – straddling the Walworth-Jefferson county border – has it.
While it doesn’t lie along an interstate highway, the city’s location halfway between Madison and Milwaukee, and relatively close to the Chicago-area, has made it attractive to businesses. The favorable location is complemented by a University of Wisconsin system campus with a highly regarded business school.
All of those factors helped lead the city along U.S. Highway 12 and State Highway 59/89 to record economic development in 1997. More than 850 jobs and 500,000 square feet were developed within the city’s business park. Not bad for a city of just over 13,000 people.
But development like that doesn’t just happen overnight. In Whitewater’s case, the struggle to grow began in the 1970s when the city’s wastewater treatment facility reached its maximum capacity. Once a new, larger facility was completed in 1979-1980, a group of business leaders got together and proposed that the city buy land and develop a business park.
But fear of overdevelopment led to a referendum on expansion and voters banned further development until it could be studied. The two sides eventually met to iron out their differences and formed the Whitewater Community Development Authority, a quasi-private, quasi-governmental organization. It became WCDA’s job to develop and run the business park, with the city council holding ultimate governing authority.
WCDA pioneered the development of commercial, industrial and residential areas, according to James Caldwell, president of First Citizens State Bank of Whitewater and a founding director and chairman of WCDA.
From the start, WCDA was dedicated to developing a quality park which includes having landscaping, curbs and strong covenants to keep the park upscale.
“Corporate customers are even more fussy than private homeowners in making the financial commitment to a development,” Caldwell notes.
Once the infrastructure of the park was in place, WCDA had to find its first tenant. It turned out to be Perlman-Rocque, the sole distributor of McDonald’s restaurant products in Wisconsin, northern Illinois and Michigan. Once Perlman-Rocque moved in 1986, that got the ball rolling and it hasn’t stopped since.
The attention to the details in the park has paid off. The park has grown from the initial 40 acres to 540 acres with potential to expand if necessary, according to Michael Stumpf, WCDA’s director.
Husco International, which manufactures hydraulic systems for the automotive and construction industries, is in the process of completing a 42,000-square-foot facility in the Whitewater business park.
Jim Gannon, CFO of Husco, noted several factors involved in choosing Whitewater. Whitewater is within a reasonable driving distance from Husco’s plant in Waukesha, management liked the park, and Gannon likes the fact that the city has a university located there.
“The university can provide us with temporary and part-time employees,” Gannon says. “Second, it can provide our employees with continuing education.”
The quality of life is also enhanced by cultural programs presented by the university, Gannon notes. Other businesses that are expanding or relocating to Whitewater also mentioned Whitewater’s student-workers. But many companies, including Husco and Generac, which began operations in its new 135,000-square-foot facility in January, also had workers commuting from Whitewater to their facilities in Waukesha.
The exportation of Whitewater workers was due, in part, to the lack of jobs within the city. The increase in job opportunities is keeping more Whitewater residents in town. That’s one reason it’s easier to find workers in Whitewater than in some other Wisconsin communities, according to Stumpf.
The one problem Whitewater is experiencing, and other communities wish they had, is the lack of residential developments within the city to house the new workers. Three developers, whom Stumpf declined to identify, are actively pursuing sites in the city. Stumpf anticipates that one or possibly two of the contenders will be announcing their plans for residential developments within the next two months.
Another key draw for businesses considering expansion or relocation is WCDA’s willingness to put together financial packages for business owners.
Eco-Tech, Inc., a plastics recycler based in McHenry, Ill., is relocating its operations to Whitewater primarily because of the $450,000 in state and local funding WCDA helped put together for the company’s move and expansion, according to Eco-Tech’s president and CEO, Joe Sadlier.
Eco-Tech will be moving 35 jobs into a 50,000-square-foot facility in August. A total of 20-25 jobs will be available once the company moves. Sadlier expects to increase the total number of employees to 90 by the year 2000.
Too much development stalled the city’s growth in the early ’80s. That scenario repeating itself 15 years later appears unlikely.
“We’ve got more than enough capacity in our municipal water systems to accommodate a city twice the size of Whitewater without having to do any major upgrades to our utilities,” WCDA’s Stumpf says.
Caldwell anticipates that once additional housing becomes available, the city will see an increase in retail outlets as well.
“The job creates a stream of revenue to the individual,” he says. “Then they (employees) look to move here, then retail grows. It’s an economic circle.”
July 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee
Whitewater’s location, amenities favored by employers