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Study: Walworth County lagging in economic development race

--- Comprehensive planning is needed

Download: PDF of the study

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Oct. 18, 2007, 5;18 p.m.)

In his 2007 budget brief, Walworth County Administrator David Bretl wrote, "there is no free lunch."

He was referring to paying for the wide range of services the county government provides its citizens.

A privately funded economic study says Walworth County, as a whole, has too many free lunches, a trend that needs to change.

Without a comprehensive, countywide economic development plan, the county economy is missing opportunities despite a prime location between four major metropolitan areas, according to the study.

"While Walworth County is experiencing above-average growth in population, current economic indicators show that Walworth County's economy is underperforming," the study's executive summary reads. "Key indicators such as per capita income and the number of school children receiving free or reduced lunch demonstrate significant problems that need to be addressed."

The study, commissioned by Johnson Bank, Keefe Real Estate and Bliss Communications, parent company to The Week, says Walworth County can expect to fall behind upward economic trends unless it plans for growth.

Opportunities are there. To capitalize, the county should establish relationships with Milwaukee and northern Illinois where a lot of people coming into the county are from, said Dr. David J. Ward, a consultant from NorthStar Economics who led the study.

"I think having some kind of a vision about where you're all going is important," he said. "Too much of planning today is about what you're not going to do. That's moderately helpful, but it doesn't tell you what you should do.

"You don't want to have this, foundries or whatever. That's fine. But what do you want to have that is going to have high growth and good paying jobs?"

Walworth County Economic Development Alliance Executive Director Fred Burkhardt said part of the problem is Walworth County's makeup of small to medium-sized communities and a lack of communication between them.

"It's sort of like if you don't know where you're going so any road will get you there. There is no consensus about what it wants to be, where it wants to go and how it wants to get there," Burkhardt said of the county as a whole.

WCEDA did not take part in the study, but is positioned to lead the effort of developing a plan, according to the study. The work should be done with the Smart Growth Technical Advisory Committee, which is coordinating the creation of Smart Growth land-use plans for every municipality.

"Clearly, it has got to be a hand-in-glove operation," Burkhardt said. "It can't be either or."

Having plans in place is attractive to businesses and can be a lure to bringing them in, Ward said.

"You have to know where you're going," Ward said.

"The county is positioned as well as anybody to go looking for and attracting a range of high-end services businesses."

Highlights from the study

--- Walworth County's per capita income of $29,089 is more than $3,000 below the state average and nearly $4,000 below the national average. It has continually lost ground since at least 1980.

--- Walworth County's population grew nearly 16 percent in the last decade. The state population grew just 6 percent in that time.

--- The percentage of students receiving free or subsidized school lunches rose from 17.6 percent in 2000 to 23.7 percent in 2004.

--- Most people who move to Walworth County come from Waukesha, Milwaukee, Cook (Ill.), McHenry (Ill.) and Racine counties, respectively.

--- Most people moving from Walworth County go to Rock, Milwaukee, Waukesha, Dane and Racine counties, respectively.

--- Walworth County workers receive less annual income than the state average in most industries except leisure and hospitality, where it is 6.3 percent above the average wages. The leisure and hospitality sector, however, is the lowest paying sector.

--- Manufacturing accounts for 17 percent of employment and 23 percent of total income in the county. Tourism accounts for 20 percent of jobs but only 10 percent of wages.

--- Walworth County commuters mainly work in McHenry (Ill.), Waukesha, Milwaukee, Racine and Rock counties, respectively.

--- Commuters to Walworth County come mainly from Rock, Jefferson, Racine, Waukesha and Milwaukee counties, respectively.

--- County strengths-location, quality of life, recreational opportunities, a good workforce, natural resources, transportation infrastructure and a local university.

--- County weaknesses-lack of vision, lack of critical mass (no major metropolitan area or business sector), parochialism (perception that locals do not welcome outsiders to community), lack of skilled workers and high-paying jobs, low income level, high taxes, too many government entities.

--- Small cities, villages and townships follow their own course and self-interest, fragmenting planning and political action.

--- There is a "surprising lack of knowledge" about what is happening in Walworth County. Surveyed participants knew what was going on in their own communities but not the county as a whole. Population estimates by those surveyed ranged from 60,000 to 150,000 residents.

--- Top 10 employers as of late 2005: UW-Whitewater, Walworth County government, Sta-Rite Industries (now Pentair), Grand Geneva resort, Wal-Mart, Miniature Precision Components, Aurora Health Care, Elkhorn Area School District, Compass Group He Services, The Abbey Resort.

Study Recommendations

1. Create a county-wide economic development plan

2. Tap into the market potential associated with the historic connection between Walworth County and northern Illinois

3. Identify and support key industry clusters

4. Create an identity or brand for Walworth County

5. Leverage business assets and connections already here

6. Build upon strong agriculture and food production base

7. Explore formation of an angel investing fund

8. Careful second-home and primary residential developments

9. Provide adequate health care for aging population

10. Improve telecommunication and transportation infrastructure

Public announcement

Gateway Technical College will host a public presentation of the study's findings at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday. Elected officials and business and community leaders are expected to be the main attendees.

More on the Web

Visit www.theweek.com to download a copy of Economic Opportunity Study for Walworth County.




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