Making strides
Center for Growth rounds out second-year string of successes

By Cara Spoto - Freeman Staff

April 28, 2018

WAUKESHA — When the Waukesha County Economic Development Corporation dissolved in late 2014, a task force set out to create a replacement.

Task force members were looking to create an entity that would be a single point of contact, that could meet with companies, and one that would understand the labor force issues facing the county and region.

On May 24, 2016, that model came together with the creation of the Waukesha County Center for Growth.

Flash forward two years, and the organization that started out as an idea appears to be hitting its stride.

In the first quarter of this year, the Center worked with multiple companies in the county that are expected to make capital expenditures in excess of $40 million and create over 400 jobs.

“We are well along for our annual goals for this year,” Tim Casey, the center’s economic development director said this week. “We’re at four times the numbers that we had for all of 2017.”
 

Groundwork

Much of the growth the Center has seen in the first few months of 2018 can be attributed to the massive Milwaukee Tool expansion. The Brookfield-based company announced in January that it is working with the city of Brookfield, the Milwaukee 7 and the Center for Growth to construct a 114,500 square-foot building across the street from its current facilities on Lisbon Road. The three-story building will be home to its research and development operations.

The company, which has grown from 300 to 1,300 employees in the last eight years, plans to add 350 new jobs, with an average annual salary of $75,000, in the next five years.

While the news of the expansion likely came as a surprise to those outside economic development circles, Casey points out that a lot of recent announcements can be attributed to months of legwork put in by those companies, the Center for Growth and other economic development officials. “Some projects take three months, some projects take six or nine months to come together. And we are starting to see the benefit of that,” he said.

In 2017, Center staff worked with nine companies expected to make $10 million in capital expenditures and add 90 jobs.

Companies responsible for that expected growth include Metal-Era of Waukesha, which began work on a $4.9 million, 25,000 square-foot expansion in July. The company has said it plans to add 32 jobs as part of the expansion. Sussex Tool was another bright spot. The longtime Sussex- based company purchased a 35,000-square-foot facility and plans to add 22 jobs.
 

Meeting with companies

While Center staff also worked to attract companies to the area last year, — including Kentucky-based Span Tech and Blowfish Racing, which moved from Maryland to Waukesha — most successes have come from working with existing Waukesha County companies.

“One of the things that is really critical for us is staff getting out and visiting with companies,” Casey said. “I met with 106 companies last year, our small business staff met with 146. It is by meeting with all of those companies that we identify those that have expansion opportunities.”

Meeting with companies also helps Center staff learn about labor force issues local companies have. Those discussions have helped staff work with the employers and educational institutions — from high schools to tech college and universities — to create programs that should help provide companies with the workers they need.

“What we are hearing from companies is that the number one issue is labor force. Everybody wants to know what you can do to help them attract, retain and develop their labor force,” Casey said. “Robyn Ludtke (the Center’s talent and education manager) has taken the lead on that, and we have worked with a lot of partners to (create) a labor force development strategy.”
 

Growing organization

With the Center’s successes growing, so has its staff. When it first opened its doors in 2016, it had one employee: Casey. Today a staff of four is helping to serve the organization’s mission. In addition to Ludtke, the organization has added two business consultants, Karen Taylor and Scott Alderton. The Center also gets staffing support from its partners at the Waukesha County Business Alliance.

The organization currently counts 11 villages and cities and one town among its municipal partners and hopes to recruit more this year.

“We have a very strong, active board of directors and as we discuss these kind of benchmarks and annual reports with them, I think everybody is like ‘OK, let’s up the goal and keep going.’ The more companies we can help grow and make capital expenditures, that leads to tax base and leads to jobs,” Casey said.

“That’s good for the economy. It’s good for the county. It’s good for the region.”