How Vilas County Is Trying To Reinvent Its Economy

University Place: Economic Development Group Emphasizes Entrepreneurship At Northern Wisconsin Incubator
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Robin Davies (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Mentoring entrepreneurs and incubating small businesses are two ways a nonprofit organization is working to boost economic development in Vilas County.

Unemployment in the county, located in north-central Wisconsin on the border with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, hit 12 percent in April 2010. At this point during the tail end of the Great Recession, this seasonally unadjusted rate was Wisconsin’s worst after Rusk and Iron counties, which are also located in the northern half of the state. Seeking to take action and foster job growth, the Vilas County government reshaped a business development committee into the Vilas County Economic Development Corporation.

One emphasis of the VCEDC's mission is to redevelop buildings into incubator spaces to support entrepreneurs. An early project in Eagle River was rehabbing the former Cranberry Products Building with help from students from Nicolet College. The VCEDC developed this business incubator to provide low-cost working space, a conference room and high-speed internet access for businesses.

Another component is collaborating with Nicolet College to offer the E-Seed Entrepreneurship Training program to county residents who want to run their own businesses. That partnership drew support from investors and donors interested in helping local startups, in turn driving growth in a sparsely populated county that depends on tourism and a large influx of summer residents.

Efforts to promote development in Phelps, an unincorporated community in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, were another major endeavor. Once dependent on the timber industry, Phelps was identified as ripe for culinary tourism and year-long outdoor business opportunities.

VCEDC's project manager Barry McLeane described some of the group's work in a Jan. 6, 2015, meeting of the Vilas Vision Leadership Program, recorded in Phelps for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place.

Key facts

  • The VCEDC bought a large building in Manitowish Waters and converted it into a business incubator. It had been empty for a couple of years. Our Wisconsin magazine moved into the space — it was previously operated out of a home — and was able to expand its staff.

  • Vilas County supported the economic development corporation with $100,000 a year for its first three years, then continued funding. The county has seen a positive return on its investment, and is receiving private and corporate support as well.

  • Opportunities for people to see and participate in the arts have been well-received in Vilas County. Arts are considered an important component of economic development in the region. VCEDC efforts support arts-related businesses in Eagle River, including an embroidery shop, an art gallery and studio, an art school, and a small marketing and technology firm.

Key quotes

  • On spaces that nurture new businesses: "Incubators bring people in that are either moving out of home businesses, or moving, or have an idea that they present to us for a business, and they need an office or they need manufacturing facilities or they need storage facilities."

  • On the E-Seed Entrepreneurship Training: "It's a 12-week class where we cover virtually everything from soup to nuts on starting your own business, from writing a business plan to insurance to marketing to legal aspects of the business. … Most people choose to move forward from that point. Some people get discouraged when they write the business plan and find out maybe this isn't the right time for them, maybe their funding isn't quite in place, etc. — and that's as important a part of our classes as success rates."

  • On Vilas County as a tourism-friendly locale: "This can really be a huge destination arts community. Summer or winter, it doesn't matter. Folks will come up for a weekend or three or four days in the middle of the winter if they can come up for the right reasons."

  • On the importance of high-speed internet access: "We can't expect people to come up here and stay for any length of time unless we can offer them not only broadband but, I mean going forward, we're going to have to offer them fiber optic."
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