WEDC CEO hears about Crawford County economic environment

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Driftless Development Director Jim Bowman and WEDC CEO Missy Hughes chat before entering Cafe’ Hope in Prairie du Chien Monday afternoon.

 

By Ted Pennekamp

 

Missy Hughes, the CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), visited Prairie du Chien Monday afternoon for a meeting with economic development officials in Peoples State Bank. Hughes then toured Cafe’ Hope and the newly opened Waterfront Hotel.

The meeting was hosted by Prosperity Southwest, which recently launched its website covering economic development for a six-county region, including Crawford County.

“We wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the things we do without WEDC,” Driftless Development Director Jim Bowman told Hughes. Bowman noted that WEDC and Alliant Energy helped fund a recently completed housing study for Crawford County, which Driftless Development and others will use to address areas of concern.

Bowman, Grant County Economic Development Corporation Director Ron Brisbois, former Crawford County Board Chairman Pete Flesch, and several other county business people told Hughes about their challenges and successes.

Fundraising efforts, a lack of affordable housing, a lack of day care facilities, and lower wages were among the main topics of discussion. 

Brisbois said the average wages in Crawford and nearby counties are 25 to 30 percent below the state average wage. He also said fundraising by economic development organizations is also a challenge.

“It’s harder to fund raise in  rural area,” said Brisbois. “We need to find more funding for entrepreneurs.”

Regarding day care, housing, low wages, a lot of workers commuting, and a lack of broadband internet, Brisbois said, “We need to break down the barriers to allow people to go to work.”

Brisbois said agricultural concerns also need to be addressed. He said the region needs to find “added value” options to go along with the traditional dairy farm. He noted one farmer he knows who has  his own milk bottling facility on his farm.

Some Southwest Wisconsin farmers have starting raising hemp as a way to supplement their incomes. Brisbois and Pete Flesch, who are both farmers, said they don’t know enough about the hemp markets in the very new industry and will have to keep abreast of the market trends for hemp in the coming seasons.

Bowman said the population decline in rural areas such as Crawford County is also a concern. He said there is no silver bullet solution but perhaps cost sharing across county lines and governmental jurisdictions and more collaboration between businesses can be a benefit to everyone.

Pam Ritchie, the CEO of the Opportunity Center in Prairie du Chien and a member of the Driftless Development Board, said the Opportunity Center built the Sharing Spaces Kitchen in 2011 with the help of $300,000 from WEDC. The kitchen has been used in various ways in the years since and has had to morph in order to find a way to make a profit, said Ritchie, who noted that it’s too expensive to process food. She said a co-packer is now using the facility to package his own products. Also, licensed hemp growers are utilizing the greenhouse.

“It’s been an interesting year of learning,” said Ritchie.

In 2017, the Opportunity Center also opened Cafe’ Hope and an adult day care center in the former Kozelka’s Men’s Wear building in Prairie du Chien. Cafe’ Hope is a sweet shop and also offers a variety of hemp products. A WEDC grant helped with the renovation of the building into Cafe’ Hope and the adult day care facility, said Ritchie. She said the adult day care also is utilized by frail elders and adults with disabilities and is looking to expand.

“There is no place in Prairie du Chien for frail elders to live,” she said. 

Jim Bowman said another shared kitchen facility which has been helping entrepreneurs is the Culinary Kitchen in Gays Mills. The production of hazel nut products is one of the businesses that has utilized the facility.

Bowman also touted the Main Street Program. “We want a vibrant Main Street Program in Prairie du Chien,” said Bowman. “The Main Street Program is one of the best things going for rural America.”

Ritchie said the Main Street Program is about having a shared vision and collaboration.

Bowman also said tourism development such as creating more attractions and events will help draw more people to the area so they can spend their money but also see what Crawford County and the surrounding area has to offer.

The creation of opportunity zones, in which entrepreneurs can avoid capital gains taxes is another option said Bowman.

Driftless Development Board member and local realtor, Becky Hackett, said a course to educate first time home buyers or sellers would help. She said perhaps such a course could be offered at Prairie du Chien High School.

Cynthia Olmstead of Driftless Brewing Company of Soldiers Grove said visitors to Soldiers Grove need more places to stay when they come to the village to enjoy the Driftless Brewing Company’s tap room and other attractions in the village.

Olmstead said Soldiers Grove has been a success story in recent years, not only with a WEDC grant helping Driftless Brewing with their expansion, but also with a new business, Solar Meats. 

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