Grow North | Visions Northwest

Broadband vital to business growth

Grow North

P.O. Box 518,
Rhinelander, WI 54501
Phone: 715-365-4468

Executive Director: Angi Schreiber

Counties: Forest, Langlade, Lincoln, Oneida, Vilas

Population: 119,000

major industries: Tourism, health care, wood products, manufacturing

Major employers: Amtec Corp., Church Mutual Insurance Co., Forest County Potawatomi Community, Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Packaging Corporation of America, Langlade Hospital, Wausau Paper Mills

Largest airport: Rhinelander/Oneida County

Colleges & universities: Nicolet College, Northcentral Technical College

Visions Northwest

1400 S. River St.,
Spooner, WI 54801
Phone: 715-635-2197

Executive Director: Myron Schuster

Counties: Ashland, Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas, Iron, Price, Rusk, Sawyer, Taylor, Washburn

Population: 163,924

Majo Industries: Manufacturing, health care, retail, tourism

Major employers: Weather Shield Manufacturing, The Peachtree Companies, Graymont LLC, St. Croix Tribal Council, Avanti Health System, MarquipWardUnited Inc.

Largest airport: Duluth International

largest port: Port of Duluth-Superior

Colleges & universities: UW-Superior, Northland College, Northcentral Technical College, Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College

In today’s world, businesses run on broadband internet. That’s why regional economic development organizations in northern Wisconsin are working hard to bring it to as many areas as possible.

“Broadband internet access affects every part of people’s lives, from home values to their businesses,” said Angi Schreiber, executive director of Grow North, which covers eight counties near Wisconsin’s border with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Annual snowmobile races in Eagle River bring thousands of tourists to the Northwoods.

Annual snowmobile races in Eagle River bring thousands of tourists to the Northwoods.

She said people will decide not to buy a home if there’s no broadband internet access – even if everything else about it is ideal. “A lot of people have home-based businesses here and they need a high-speed connection to be successful,” Schreiber said. “We also have part-time residents who own a company in southern Wisconsin or Illinois and need it to be connected to them while staying in their second home.”

In addition, a survey conducted by Grow North found that second-home owners would spend three weeks longer in the area if broadband access was available – which would boost the region’s economy, Schreiber said.

Widespread broadband coverage is a challenge in sparsely populated areas, said Rick Roeser, business development specialist for the Northwest Wisconsin Planning Commission, the umbrella organization for Visions Northwest, a 10-county region in northwest Wisconsin. He said telecom companies need a critical mass of people to make infrastructure installation profitable – or even break even.

“There are definitely obstacles to getting high-speed internet, but that’s just one piece of the economic puzzle,” Roeser said. “It’s something we continue to work on.”

Crystal Rohde, administrator for Visions Northwest, said broadband access is only one part of the infrastructure required for businesses to be successful. Visions Northwest submitted a grant to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation so it can conduct an extensive survey of existing infrastructure – not just broadband – and determine how those conditions may impact or possibly restrict economic development. That information about the areas well equipped for expansion “could be shared online with economic development professionals so they know what we have to offer,” she said.

Wisconsin’s Broadband Expansion Program is helping to connect local businesses and residents with high-speed Internet access. Wittenberg Wireless LLC received $220,000 in grants to bring broadband coverage to Mattoon in Shawano County and residents and businesses near the Silver Birch Ranch Camp area in Langlade County. ChoiceTel LLC received nearly $250,000 to build an 18-mile fiber optic route to connect businesses and homes in Conover and Land O’Lakes in Vilas County to high-speed internet. In both cases, the telecom companies match state money with their own.

“It is so costly (for these projects) and not possible without some help from the state,” Schreiber said.

Boom Lake near Rhinelander is a popular summer destination. Tourism and the wood products industry are the region's top economic drivers.

Boom Lake near Rhinelander is a popular summer destination. Tourism and the wood products industry are the region’s top economic drivers.

Last summer, Grow North sent out 14,000 surveys to get a true representation of areas with coverage and those without.

“With broadband coverage in place, it will add so much. Schools and students need it for schoolwork and senior citizens could chat with a medical professional online through an e-visit instead of making long drives,” she said. “It definitely adds to the quality of life.”

Enhancing the quality of life for people living in northern Wisconsin will help with another issue facing the region – finding and retaining a skilled workforce.

“Broadband coverage would definitely be a plus” for workers moving into the region, Schreiber said.

And businesses need to attract workers to northern Wisconsin, said Sheldon Johnson, executive director of the Northwest Wisconsin Planning Commission. Grow North partnered with the Northwest Wisconsin Workforce Investment Board on an extensive study last summer that identified areas most in need of employees as well as the types of skills those job openings require.

“The largest number of current vacancies are in management positions and the transportation and materials moving occupations,” he said. “In the future, we expect gaps in health care practitioners and business and finance occupations.”

Rohde said a key part of the study examined the skills employers are looking for. “Problem-solving and creative thinking were cited most often,” she said. 

Visions Northwest will work with local companies, educational facilities and the Northwest Wisconsin Workforce Investment Board to ensure training opportunities and educational programs are available to prepare residents for open jobs.

“Collaboration is part of our mindset,” he said. “We believe in working together to get done what’s needed.”

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