BY Miles Maguire
The front-page headline in the Oshkosh Northwestern back in August was dramatic—the new nonprofit organization formed to improve the local business climate, the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp., had set a goal of creating 1,000 jobs over the next three years.
When, in early October, Oshkosh Corp. announced that it would be cutting somewhere between 300 and 400 jobs by the end of the year, the announcement of the new entity with the upbeat nickname (GO-EDC) took on even greater significance.
The area’s economic development efforts have a long history of initiatives but a relatively short list of accomplishments, a point that was made in a consultant study that was released two years ago.
The Illinois-based consultants, Prager Co., observed that the city has two major things going for it that set it apart from other communities its size. These are a nationally recognized name and a renown for hosting major events, including aviation’s premiere showcase, the annual EAA AirVenture.
The community also has a large number of organizations that have tried to contribute to economic development, including the city, the county, the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation, the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and Fox Valley Technical College.
But despite the best of intentions, as Prager put it, “the tangible output of these efforts in recent years has been minimal.”
This is where GO-EDC is supposed to come in.
“We are kind of the umbrella, to make sure that everyone is working together,” said Bill Wyman, the chairman of the organization and an owner of The Waters. “We want to be the one-stop shopping place, so that we can plan to be more coordinated and collaborate with each other. We want to make sure we move together, instead of being in our separate silos.”
Greater coordination in any endeavor is surely a good thing, but that alone will not be enough to improve the city’s economic condition.
As Wyman sees it, the city needs to get beyond its traditional pillars of employment: heavy manufacturing and not-for-profit service providers. “We have to move to a broader base,” he said.
Companies like Oshkosh have generated large numbers of high-paying jobs that don’t require advanced educational credentials. But these employers are dependent on customer forces that are beyond their control. “When the contract’s done, it’s nobody’s fault,” Wyman said. “But people have to get laid off.”
He also sees shortcomings outside the private sector, where government and health care organizations predominate. The fact that the jobs in these fields are stable “can be really good” as a moderating influence in a recession, but they don’t have as much upside potential when economic indicators turn positive, he explained.
(It’s worth noting that cities like Washington and Madison have figured out ways to use the strength of the public sector as a springboard for robust private sector growth, but that’s probably the subject for another column.)
GO-EDC has identified four areas where it will target its efforts: information technology, manufacturing, aviation/aerospace and “second stage” growth companies, which can be defined as businesses that have passed through the startup phase but still have less than $100 million in revenue and fewer than 100 employees.
One curious aspect of the group’s strategic plan is the relative lack of attention paid to the city’s waterfront redevelopment efforts, which get only a passing mention. It would seem that a revitalized Fox River could serve as an important magnet for both water-based recreational businesses and shore-side corporate recruitment.
GO-EDC is clearly still a work in progress, as shown by the fact that it has openings on its proposed 25-member board.
In all the talk of economic development, which is supposedly about job creation, one party that often gets left out is any kind of group that represents workers. But Wyman said that GO-EDC needs to recruit some representation from this sector. “We want to increase our diversity, and organized labor is one of the groups, one of the areas, we are going to be looking at,” he said.
Having a broad base of public support will be important, in part because the group plans to turn to local taxpayers for financial support. It expects to get roughly $200,000 a year from city and county residents.
Based on these numbers, it appears that the organization’s total budget will be around $500,000, with 60 percent of the total, or $300,000, coming from private sources.
The new emphasis on economic development comes just as one of the city’s high-profile efforts to support a company is coming up short. Oshkosh Corp.’s ongoing layoffs will bring its local employment levels below 2,000, which was the number that was used to justify a city taxpayer contribution of $5 million to help the $8 billion company build a high-tech paint shop in 2010.
With federal spending expected to continue to stagnate, stock analysts say the company faces a challenging environment even if it is successful in its ongoing pursuit of big Defense contracts.
That’s where GO-EDC’s diversification strategy seems to make a lot of sense. One piece of encouraging news is that its goal of 1,000 new jobs in the next three years is not as far-fetched as it might first appear.
Last December the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that employment across the country should increase by slightly more than 1 percent a year over the next decade. For 2012 the Census Bureau estimated that the city had about 32,000 workers, which would put it on track to add about 320 positions annually.
Thus an addition of 1,000 jobs over three years would be just about exactly on target as long as the national trend holds for Oshkosh.
Miles Maguire is the author of Advanced Reporting: Essential Skills for 21st Century Journalism. Send questions, comments and suggestions to email@example.com