Systemic changes fuel economy’s rebound
Washington County fared better than nation in recovery

By ALEX ZANK - Daily News

June 7, 2015

WEST BEND - A crisis can change someone’s life forever.

With something like the financial crisis of 2007 and the global recession that followed, not only does that change an individual, it reshapes entire economies, ranging in magnitude from local to international.

West Bend certainly had its share of economic woes while riding out the Great Recession.

A post-recession U.S. economy — and by extension West Bend and Washington County — looks different than before. These changes, however, have been a long time coming.

And the changing economic face of the community has city officials more confident in a healthier economy down the road.

Area employment recovers

Earlier this year, West Bend officials announced unemployment had reached pre-recession levels.

The same can be seen looking at the numbers for the county as a whole. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development tracks the unemployment rate of each county.

Using this measure, the impact of the financial crisis and recession can be seen clearly.

The unemployment rate to start of 2007 was sitting at 4.5 percent, meaning less than 5 percent of people in the county were out of work and actively seeking a job.

The effects of the crisis weren’t realized in the county until about the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 when judging solely by the unemployment rate.

Until December 2008, the rate flowed back from the mid-3 percent unemployment rate range up to nearly 5 percent. Then, in December, it hit 5.5 percent.

The unemployment rate only increased from there, reaching 9.4 percent in March 2009 The peak unemployment rate for the county was 9.8 percent in February 2010. This means nearly one-tenth of Washington County residents were without a job and actively looking for one.

The national unemployment rate shows county residents were not alone in their job struggles. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the national rate reached an even 10 percent in October 2009. In February 2010, U.S. unemployment rate matched Washington County at 9.8 percent.

Comparatively speaking, Washington County fared better than the U.S. between 2007-14, seeing unemployment consistently below the national rate.

Growing service industry

By that one measure, it may appear everything is back to normal in West Bend and Washington County. However, looking at the unemployment rate doesn’t tell the whole story.

A long-term change continued, becoming more noticeable, when the county met its economic turnaround.

Speaking on West Bend’s emergence from the recession, City Administrator T.J. Justice attributed several things that aided it in doing so.

“I think it’s clearly a rebirth of the manufacturing industry, a growth in the field of entrepreneurialism and a growing retail and service sector,” he said.

The service and retail industry is a key component when telling the new story of West Bend’s economy.

One way to spot evidence of the growing sector is by taking a look at the tax base the city and county received both past and present.

A report from the city’s administration office highlights two data points, 1960 and 2009, to take a look at how its tax base has changed.

In 1960, the city’s revenue makeup looked like this: 65 percent of it was coming from the residential sector, slightly less than 19 percent from manufacturing and about 16 percent from the commercial sector.

In 2009, it looked a bit different. Residential property gained a bit, reaching 69 percent of the city’s tax base. The commercial sector made significant strides, reaching 28.4 percent of the city’s tax base, and manufacturing dwindled to 2.6 percent of the share.

“You go back 50-plus years, (West Bend) was largely a blue collar manufacturing community,” Justice said.

He also pointed out the service sector in the area was diverse, ranging from retail to healthcare to legal services.

It’s important to note that the changes here do not necessarily mean the manufacturing industry is disappearing from the area.

MD Design & Automation moved its operations from Waukesha County to Washington County in June 2014. This represented a $1.2 million investment, according to data provided by the city.

Dustyn Daul, toolmaker with MD Design & Automation, gave a few reasons the business chose to do this.

“We needed to expand our footprint,” he said. He said the business is planning to expand, and land in West Bend was available for purchase that provided them with this opportunity for growth.

“Waukesha county is so developed already,” he said.

The labor supply is a bit different in the area, too. He explained that Waukesha County’s labor largely has different training and skill sets than Washington County.

“The employment pool down there is different than up here,” he said. “There are better trained people here for tool and dye.”

Justice said the emerging service industry now provides a good economic balance in the city.

“We’re not a community that relies heavily on any one type of business.”