Broadband, tourism, youth ‘brain drain’ among areas of concern for new KCEDC director
CASCO – The new executive director of the Kewaunee County Economic Development Corp. has been on the job for two weeks, so he's still learning his way around the county. Yet, he said he already has one priority item on his list of things to do.
Richard Baker said improving access to broadband across the county is one thing he's heard about consistently since he took over officially on Jan 7. It's also something with which he's familiar, having spearheaded a broadband feasibility study in his most recent position as community development coordinator for Mille Lacs County, Minnesota.
"From an economic development development standpoint, to me, that's number one," Baker said in an interview Monday in his new office, a day before he was introduced to the County Board. "It's infrastructure, like water and roads. Not only from a business and residential standpoint but from a visitor standpoint. If someone comes to visit, they're probably going to log on in the morning to see what's going on."
Baker is the KCEDC's first permanent director since February. His work in Mille Lacs, a rural area about 80 miles northwest of Minneapolis, involved development and studies on a range of subjects from retail, tourist demographics and the arts to housing and small, community downtown areas.
The 53-year-old also was executive director of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce in Iowa, where among other things, he was involved with a deal that brought the Farm Progress Show, the country's largest outdoor agricultural show, to Boone every other year for 20 years, alternating with Decatur, Illinois. He also was director of the Keweenaw Peninsula Chamber of Commerce in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Mille Lacs, Boone and Keweenaw counties have slightly larger populations than Kewaunee, and those three lean on tourism as a larger part of their economies — "… a large part of the Keweenaw Peninsula, it was number one in Mille Lacs, a lot in Boone County," Baker said.
While Kewaunee County leans on its agriculture, it has made an effort to increase its tourism in recent years through a growing number of art galleries, wineries and breweries, and festivals such as the "Soar on the Shore" kite festival in Algoma. Baker said tourism will not only help the businesses directly involved but also could encourage visitors, business people and entrepreneurs to make the county their new home.
"My philosophy on economic development is, if a place is worth visiting, it's worth living in," Baker said. "Tourism is one of the tools we use to drive economic development. This close to Door County, there's potential. There's a good chance if a person comes to visit, they may just say, 'Hey, I could live here.'"
In fact, that's part of the reason Baker took the KCEDC post. He and his wife often vacationed in Door County and toured through Kewaunee County as well.
"We just enjoyed the area, and knowing the difference between being a tourist versus living here," Baker said. "I just wanted to immerse myself in the culture."
Baker said he also hopes to help the KCEDC itself move forward. He said the nonprofit organizations for which he previously worked also struggled before he came on board, and he was able to help them right the ship.
"For where this organization's at, I think I'm the right fit," he said.
Another item on which Baker said he'll focus is "brain drain" among the county's young adults, who might move out of the county because they see better opportunities and financial well-being in a large, urban area.
To that end, Baker said he hopes to show young people the opportunities available in the county. He said he'll see if there's room for growth in the popular Ag Career Days program the KCEDC has sponsored the past four years, and he's hoping to put together a career days-type of event for some of the county's biggest industries to take place this fall.
"It's another great opportunity to introduce kids to what kind of industries are in Kewaunee County, the career potential there is," Baker said. "The average person who drives by Kewaunee Fabrications, WS Packaging, has no idea what's going on inside those walls.
"The best workforce you've got is living here. They grew up here. It's their community."
He said he also hopes to get vacant business properties, especially large, former employers such as the Kewaunee Power Station and Algoma Hardwoods, listed on LOIS, an online database for commercial real estate, or a similar site.
For the immediate future, though, Baker said he needs to get to know the people and businesses so he can move ahead with helping the county's economy.
"I want to get out and find out the issues they're facing, then start to develop some sort of plan," Baker said. "I'll spend a lot of time to gather facts to get a handle on what makes sense here."
The Kewaunee County Economic Development Corp. is in the Bank of Luxemburg building at 100 Old Orchard Ave., Casco. For more information, call Richard Baker at 920-255-1661 or visit kcedc.org.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Broadband, tourism, youth 'brain drain' among areas of concern for new KCEDC director