Kewaunee business development needs help; some even questioned its value. But new director has high hopes
CASCO – He's taking the lead of a troubled organization at a troubling time in the business world, but Ben Nelson plans to use his leadership and entrepreneurial skills to help that organization — and Kewaunee County business in general — thrive.
Nelson was recently named the new executive director of the Kewaunee County Economic Development Corp., or KCEDC for short. He started in his new position effective Feb. 8, replacing Amber Hewitt, a KCEDC board member who served as interim director after the organization parted ways with previous director Richard Baker, who'd been on the job less than two years at the end of September.
He comes in understanding he has a lot of work ahead of him. That includes strengthening KCEDC's ties with both member and non-member businesses as well as with county government, which has questioned at least at the committee level during the annual budget process whether it should continue to provide funds for what's supposed to be a self-sustaining organization that hasn't achieved that status since its founding in 2004.
"One, just establishing a relationship will all our partners that we currently have, but also to grow new partnerships we don't have yet, or have fallen back, with the business community," Nelson said when asked about his immediate plans for KCEDC. "Additionally, we're doing some strategic planning, looking to provide entrepreneurial opportunities. I think that's important to the county."
On top of those continuing concerns, there's the COVID-19 pandemic that has slowed the economy and hurt, if not closed, many businesses.
But Nelson said the public-private organization, whose stated mission is "to retain, expand, develop and attract businesses that strengthen the economy of Kewaunee County," has had some successes in recent years and has resources for existing and potential businesses, including guidance toward business grants and relief from the pandemic.
Now Nelson wants to let the County Board and the community know about them.
"In addition to setting strategic priorities and providing resources to the county, one thing I think the corporation has failed to do is highlight its successes," Nelson said, "communicating these stories and the importance of having an economic development corporation in the county … I didn't feel a lot of our resources that are available were known of.
"In the short term my goal is to get out and engage with all these partners, including the nonprofits, trying to re-engage that relationship."
He said he also needs to work with KCEDC members and county officials to determine what they expect from the organization. Establishing confidence in it, from county government and the community, is one of Nelson's priorities.
"(Another goal is) working with our members to understand what metrics they want to see," Nelson said. "If they have something in mind, great; if not, I can work with them to put something together."
As for making the organization self-supporting, Nelson said grant opportunities will be explored, along with increasing KCEDC memberships and sponsors.
Nelson also said the KCEDC can improve finding ways to connect local business leaders with each other and with potential business people so they can work together.
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While working on these more short-term and intermediate plans, Nelson also wants to put together a longer-range strategy for KCEDC.
"It's really putting together an action plan that can be executed in the next 18 months," he said. "To me, if you don't develop a long-term plan, all these short-term goals will be just chasing our tails."
Nelson's recent background is as an entrepreneur. He's a native of Northeast Wisconsin and holds two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and a master’s in Organizational Leadership and Administration from Concordia University. He said he's lived in Kewaunee County for almost five years and founded two businesses there: a company that supplied dog chews made from antlers, which he sold to another business person; and his current company, Radix Leadership, which offers leadership development consulting.
Given his entrepreneurial resume since he's been in Kewaunee County, it's perhaps no surprise that Nelson said that opportunities exist for aspiring business owners and there are people interested in filling those niches.
"Based on a lot of conversations I had with the community, I feel there's more entrepreneurial people in the county than you might realize," he said. "So I'm trying to be a facilitator."
Nelson is optimistic about the future of business in the county and how KCEDC can help it not only maintain but also grow. First, he said Kewaunee County's schools provide their students with a solid educational background, with a number of special technical and agricultural programs being implements in the schools in recent years.
He also noted the county's efforts toward making it an attractive place to live, with much attention and work directed toward its Lake Michigan shoreline, its parks and recreational activities. Among improvements in amenities, the county is in the process of improving its high-speed broadband availability.
And, Nelson noted the county's proximity to Door County and its recreational and arts-related offerings as well as the Green Bay metropolitan area.
"To me, we have some great resources in the county already," Nelson said. "All of our schools are performing very well, they have great staffs and leaders, so we have a great educational pipeline here.
"And the county in general is a great place to live. I think it's a very attractive location. We have a very strong foundation in place here, so it's really putting together that strategy that foster job opportunities."
But, Nelson said those positives need to be communicated better so more people are aware of them. Improved communication is one of his key goals, and he said he welcomes the opportunity to hear from the community about what KCEDC can do to help the county.
"I'd like to encourage anybody interested in economic development to reach out to me," Nelson said. "I love to communicate with people."
The Kewaunee County Economic Development Corp. is in the Bank of Luxemburg building at 100 Old Orchard Ave., Casco. For more information, call Executive Director Ben Nelson at 920-255-1661 or visit kcedc.org.
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Kewaunee business development needs help; some even questioned its value. But new director has high hopes