Northern Migration

Illinois companies are flocking to southeastern Wisconsin

Kenosha County has become a hotbed for business relocation and expansion, bolstered in large part by successful efforts to lure companies from northern Illinois across the state line.

“It’s well known that many Illinois business operators desire a better business environment, and some are willing to move across the border to make that happen,” Kenosha Area Business Alliance (KABA) President Todd Battle said. “It’s a popular refrain. There’s generally a sense of frustration with the government in Illinois and concerns about the state’s long-term fiscal health.”

Illinois has struggled to balance its state budget and has been faced with huge pension obligations, making Wisconsin a more attractive option for business, he said.

“Wisconsin has worked to get its fiscal house in order,” Battle said. “Contrast that with a very different set of circumstances across the state line in Illinois.”

Lighting makers, Kenall Manufacturing brought 400 jobs to Kenosha from Gurnee, Ill.

Lighting makers, Kenall Manufacturing brought 400 jobs to Kenosha from Gurnee, Ill.

Wisconsin also offers incentives such as tax credits for manufacturers, he noted.

The lure of establishing a presence in Wisconsin, on its own, has been a strong attraction for Illinois businesses, Battle insisted.

“We have never really felt like it was the best approach for us to be prospecting in our neighbor’s back yard,” he said. “But when the phone rings, we are very responsive.”

Kenosha County has experienced a surge in business, with more than 7 million square feet of development announced in the last two years, the creation of more than 4,400 jobs and almost $815 million in capital investment, according to KABA.

Among the businesses recently moving to Kenosha County from northern Illinois is Toolamation Services Inc., which provides broaching services and a range of screw machine tooling products. Toolamation moved its headquarters and factory to a 46,000-square-foot facility in Kenosha from Zion, Ill., in 2015, and brought with it 50 jobs.

Others include:

Kenall Manufacturing Co., a lighting firm that moved to Kenosha from Gurnee and brought with it 400 jobs. The company, which plans to employ as many as 620 workers in Kenosha by 2018, cited a lucrative incentive deal from the state as part of the reason for its move.

Governor Scott Walker and Rep. Samantha Kerkman welcome EMCO to Pleasant Prairie.

Governor Scott Walker and Rep. Samantha Kerkman welcome EMCO to Pleasant Prairie.

EMCO Chemical Distributors moved its headquarters to a new 260,000-square-foot facility in Pleasant Prairie. The company, which had been located in North Chicago, employs about 145 people.

Good Foods Group, a fast-growing, Illinois-based manufacturer of all-natural food products moved into a 57,000-square-foot headquarters and production facility in Pleasant Prairie, initially creating 50 to 75 jobs.

Hanna Cylinders, previously located in Libertyville, Ill., moved its operations and 100 jobs to a 106,000-square-foot plant in Pleasant Prairie.

KABA tends to present general information about the communities in Kenosha County and tout the strong countywide infrastructure, balanced municipal budgets, shovel-ready properties and attractive and convenient industrial parks.

“A lot of our selling really comes down to presenting case studies,” Battle said.

The Milwaukee 7 and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) are the primary entities working to attract businesses to Wisconsin.

“We go out and talk to companies about their business,” Milwaukee 7 President Pat O’Brien said. “We connect them with state, county and city officials about incentives and workforce needs.”

For Illinois companies, Wisconsin offers stability, he said.

“Illinois’ pension plans are a mess. That worries companies,” O’Brien said.

Rust-Oleum has established a large distribution center in Pleasant Prairie.

Rust-Oleum has established a large distribution center in Pleasant Prairie.

The attraction of businesses to Kenosha County, from Illinois and elsewhere, tends to generate ongoing interest and enthusiasm, according to Battle.

“Activity begets activity,” he said.

Northern Illinois companies are far from alone in targeting Kenosha County as a desirable location to conduct business. Atlanta-based Gourmet Foods International, a cheese converter, wanted a location in the Upper Midwest and recently decided on a 35,000-square-foot site in the Business Park of Kenosha, in large part because of Wisconsin’s reputation as a dairy-focused state.

The WEDC partnered with KABA for the allocation of $200,000 in economic development tax credits to attract Gourmet Foods, which considered other locations before ultimately choosing southeastern Wisconsin to serve markets in the Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis areas.   

“Although the WEDC often is presented with opportunities from states bordering Wisconsin to communicate our state’s business climate benefits, our strategy does not focus on company relocation from specific states,” WEDC spokesman Steven Michels said. “Instead, our focus is to attract inward investment of capital and talent to Wisconsin by promoting our strong supply chain, reliable infrastructure and our talented workforce, messages that we also promote internationally.”

WEDC cultivates strategic relationships and communicates the state’s strengths with site selectors, consultants, corporate developers and commercial real estate brokers, Michels said. That relationship-building extends internationally through foreign direct investment into Wisconsin companies and technologies, he added.

“Through our global network of trade representatives, international trade missions, trade shows and export training programs, WEDC seeks to broadly showcase opportunities for investing in Wisconsin,” Michels said. 

Other companies based out of state that have chosen to invest in southeastern Wisconsin include:

Seattle, Wash.-based Amazon shipped its first order from its new 1 million-square-foot fulfillment center in Kenosha in June 2015. The facility has 1,000 full-time employees.

Niagara Bottling, an Ontario, Calif.-based producer of private-label bottled water, opened a 377,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in 2015 that initially created 40 jobs.

Several large distribution centers have been established in Kenosha and Pleasant Prairie, including facilities for Meijer, Uline, Rust-Oleum and Gordon Food Service.

Kenosha County’s location mid-way between Milwaukee and Chicago makes it a highly attractive location, Battle said.

Business attraction efforts, especially when it comes to industrial companies, have been bolstered by southeastern Wisconsin’s manufacturing heritage, Battle believes.

“This area grew up on manufacturing,” he said.

A strong technical college system and manufacturing workforce are also benefits to any industrial firm looking to locate or expand into southeastern Wisconsin, Battle noted, adding that maintaining connections with business operators after their companies have established roots in the region is also important.

“We’re proud of the relationships we’ve built with these companies,” Battle said. “A lot of them become very active in our organization and the community.”

The companies then become some of the region’s most successful marketing tools, he said.

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