Wausau Group 2.0

(First published in the March 14, 2019 issue of City Pages)

A new economic plan for the region has some real teeth to it


Wausau Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Dave Eckmann

Dave Eckmann is excited about a new strategic plan for economic development which was unveiled March 14. There’s good reason for the Wausau Chamber CEO’s enthusiasm. The phrase “strategic plan” might make people’s eyes gloss over, but this plan has some real teeth.

Perhaps the biggest news is creating a council of community and business stakeholders that will meet regularly to shape the region and its development. When I suggest to Eckmann that it sounds like Wausau Group 2.0 — referring to the legendary business leaders in Wausau’s early days who shaped the economic landscape — he points out the difference: inclusivity. The new group will include people from all areas: business, education, economic development, municipalities, event organizers and the Hmong community.

The Wausau Regional Chamber of Commerce has been developing this plan for nearly two years, Eckmann says. The main concern: a local shortage of young talent. According to a recent report by economic modeling firm Emsi, Marathon County has 4,000 fewer Millennials than a region this size should have. Couple that with about 4,000 more people than average soon to leave the workforce as they retire and it’s clear the population isn’t growing enough to match jobs. It’s already a big problem. The same report points out that the area added nearly 5,000 jobs in the past five years, but added less than 1,000 people.

Right now, there’s no roadmap or set of priorities to fix that. The plan, developed by TIP Strategies out of Austin, identifies how to address the problem in three key areas. Eckmann couldn’t yet reveal all the details prior to its official release, but shared with City Pages the overall scope and some details.

Talent attraction/retention Part of the plan calls for a website that’s already in the works, Eckmann says. Many other areas, such as Bend, Oregon, already have pages dedicated to highlighting their community. Wausau-Marathon County doesn’t, and that’s a missing tool for recruiters. Eckmann says the strategy could involve promoting the area as an extreme sports hub with its kayaking, mountain biking and skiing, for example.

Technology and innovation: This includes broadband expansion, a push toward 5G wireless networks to create a “smart” city, and helping to fill industry gaps. For example, Eckmann points to local window manufacturers that have to ship their products to another community for heat treating. Why not help establish a heat treating business here to complete the supply chain?

Placemaking is the notion of creating a community where people want to live. That can be challenging to define, but good placemaking means you have positive feelings about where you live, or visitors are impressed enough to want to stay. Supporting people who make that happen is key to that strategy.