Wisconsin Department of Commerce Newsletter
June 2006
Commerce Program Helps Strengthen Economic Development/Retention

Every now and then, a woman that may look familiar to some – but they're not exactly sure why – can be seen on the fifth floor. As one of a very small handful of Division of Community Development employees based in Milwaukee, Geri Petersen laughs good-naturedly at the notion that she is a veritable stranger among her co-workers. ("Maybe she's an auditor???") However, since 1997, the Indiana native, who found her way to Wisconsin via California and Hawaii, has been in charge of the state's Business Retention and Expansion Study Program.

Geri Petersen is in charge of the state's Business Retention and Expansion Study Program
Geri Petersen is in charge of the state's Business Retention and Expansion Study Program

The program, which is free to Wisconsin communities and helps determine factors that affect local business retention and expansion, was originally a part of Ameritech's Marketing Division in Milwaukee. During a reorganization of that company in 1997, Ameritech officials decided that the survey-driven program would be more appropriate at the state level, and turned it over to the Department of Commerce. Former Ameritech employee Geri Petersen followed, and set up shop at a Commerce satellite office. She is now located in Schlitz Park on the north side of Milwaukee, an office she shares with Minority Business Area Development Manager Mary Perich, and Minority Business Administrator Ruby Brooks, when she's in town.

So what exactly is the Business Retention and Expansion Study Program?

The purpose of the WIBRES program is to help communities develop a systematic approach to business retention and expansion efforts. The overall objective of the program is to help local governments understand the effects of their policies on local businesses. The program provides an opportunity to:

  • Gain an understanding of the business community's view of local economy;
  • Determine future expansion/relocation plans of companies in order to set up an early warning system for local action;
  • Acquaint business executives with assistance available through various economic development programs;
  • Improve the communications bridge and strengthen relationships between local/county government and the business community;

Identify specific concerns and problems of the local businesses and provide swift, effective solutions. The WIBRES program uses an in-depth survey instrument to collect information from chief executive officers on the local business climate.

What the Survey Covers

  • History and status of present location
  • Nature of the business
  • Physical plant specifications
  • Markets and customers
  • Competitors
  • Future plans
  • Labor and manpower
  • Assessment of government relations, regulations, and services in the area
  • Financial conditions
  • Energy
  • Community linkage
  • Overall impressions

Communities may wish to collect data to examine community specific issues as well. Commerce will design an addendum questionnaire for this purpose and provide feedback of the data collected.

Study Results
After data analysis, Commerce provides a print-ready written report with chart illustrations and a slide presentation of the study findings to the community. This will enable community leaders to develop strategies aimed at maintaining a healthy economic environment.

Community/county survey findings are compiled annually to develop a composite picture of the business climate across Wisconsin. Comparisons of the local area to the state composite findings are presented to the community as well. This allows the community to examine its business development situation in relationship to others in the state.

Where Studies Can Be Conducted

  • Individual community - involving a minimum of 25 businesses.
  • Area - consisting of more than one community but not the entire county.
  • County - consisting of county businesses.
  • Composite area - several separate community studies combined to provide county/regional data.

Follow-Up Studies
Follow-up studies are recommended every four to five years to provide information on how economic changes have affected the business community; determine current needs and plans; and verify improvements made in the local business climate. This information enables the community to develop a targeted retention program.

Who Qualifies?
Communities must demonstrate the desire to aggressively complete the study; a commitment to follow through on trouble areas that surface from the study; the ability to conduct interviews; and an interest in developing strategies for business retention and expansion based on the study results.

What the Study Will Cost
Commerce will cover costs associated with staffing and compiling the survey report. Eligible costs include instruction, data analysis, comparison of study results to statewide composite figures, and a written report and slide presentation to demonstrate survey findings.

The community will be responsible for the following costs: postage, personnel to enter data into a user-friendly system (provided by Commerce), printing of additional reports, and costs associated with the presentation; i.e., meeting space, refreshments and invitations.

Commerce will coordinate studies through the Area Development Managers (ADMs). A Project Manager's Guide is provided to walk communities through the study process. MS Excel system files for data entry and MS Word files of correspondence documents will be furnished as well.

Petersen has conducted studies for a myriad of communities throughout the state. She just wrapped one up for the Village of Cross Plains. After the loss of a major employer, the village wanted to which focused on a comprehensive approach to economic development. The community is proactively preparing for a by-pass that will divert traffic from its downtown businesses. Commerce Area District Manager (ADM) Kathy Heady will continue to be involved as the municipality work to carry out proposed recommendations that resulted from the survey.

Prairie du Chien, which received Main Street status in 2005, undertook the WIBRES survey because as part of a comprehensive plan to assure Prairic du Chien is a community where businesses can thrive and employees and their families will be attracted to as a place to live. Through the survey businesses expressed difficulty recruiting professional and technical workers even though the average wage offered for these positions is above average. Main Street efforts include a plan to make the north and south entrances to the city more attractive, which will affect businesses along those corridors. Façade changes and relocations may occur. The community is looking into a smart approach to developing additional housing options as well. Stoughton and the counties of Lincoln, Forest, Oneida and Vilas are also utilizing the tool, which included addendums for their retail/ service/tourism/lodging sectors.

After participating in the program, Columbia County noted that the WIBRES is "one of the greatest tools they (Commerce) have provided to us," and that the county's Economic Development Corporation "appreciates the value of this important economic development tool and the advantages it offers."

Shawano County noted that after its 2003/2004 survey, "a significant business retention project" unfolded. Thanks to the survey, a red flag was raised, and after local, state and federal officials stepped in to work with the owners, that particular company stayed in the state, and just broke ground on a $5 million plant expansion that generated an additional 40 jobs. That was just one of many success stories attributed to the survey.

Petersen values the relationships she has built with the diverse group of professionals she works with through out the state. "It's rewarding to hear the success stories and know my studies can impact business development in communities and ultimately the state of Wisconsin. The key is for area economic development professionals to just do it – get out there and visit your local businesses, let them know they are appreciated and engage in discussions regarding their needs and future plans."

For more information contact your Area Development Managers.

-- Barbro McGinn

The newsletter is issued electronically every other month.

Please send comments or questions to Barbro McGinn, editor.

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