Oconto County future seen as bright

Tourism and economic development organization unveils new name and branding
Warren Bluhm
News Editor

The chief economist for the Wisconsin Department of Revenue told a gathering of Oconto County business and government leaders Feb. 5 that the state of Wisconsin has shown “remarkable resilience in a challenging economy.”

John Koskinen was the keynote speaker at the annual Economic Outlook Breakfast hosted by the newly rebranded Tourism and Economic Development Corp. of the Oconto Region (TEDCOR). The nonprofit formerly known as the Oconto County Economic Development Corp. held this year’s event at Oconto Falls High School.

“Oconto County is an active participant in the Wisconsin economy, showing the same strength and resilience that the Wisconsin economy does,” Koskinen said. He walked his audience through a flurry of PowerPoint slides full of statistics he said indicate the state and Oconto County have rebounded from the economic impact of pandemic-era lockdowns and restrictions.

Fueled in part by increases in federal aid to local and state municipalities and by the economic recovery, the state’s general fund balance was $7.5 billion at the end of the last fiscal year, and its budget stabilization fund was at $1.8 billion, both record numbers, Koskinen said.

It’s often overlooked that Wisconsin is a productive state full of hard-working, middle-class families, he said.

“We build things. We farm. We move things. We insure things,” Koskinen said. “We have a bigger private sector than the rest of the country and a smaller government sector.”

Among the positive signs are that Oconto County and the state of Wisconsin recorded record low unemployment rates in 2022 and 2023 and that more people are working in the state now than they were before the pandemic.

The challenges include a labor shortage that Koskinen said is easing somewhat, but the state still had 200,000-plus job openings in November and a shortage of about 100,000 workers.

“That’s if you think in terms of, if I had the right person, with the right skill set, in the right industry, in the right location, and still be short 100,000 people,” he said.

The good news is that more and more people are coming back into the job market all the time, Koskinen said.

He said Wisconsin’s positives include record highs in construction employment occurring month after month during 2023, the fourth-lowest poverty rate in the country, and a cost of living 8% below the U.S. average and even lower than in neighboring states.

“If you were thinking of relocating from Chicago or Minneapolis to the Green Bay area, you’re going to drop your housing costs by about 40%,” Koskinen said.

Oconto County has seen among the healthiest recoveries of all Wisconsin counties, including the largest increase in new local businesses in 20 years, he said.

After Koskinen’s presentation, Jayme Sellen, executive director of TEDCOR, gave an overview of the vision she and her organization have for Oconto County in coming years.

One goal is to reduce the number of people who commute to work in Green Bay and neighboring counties.

“We have roughly 20,000 people in our labor force, and over half of them leave every morning to work,” Sellen said. “How do we decrease our outbound commuters by 10% by 2026? We have 600 job openings. We have labor to spare.”

Other goals include investing $3 million in community assets to bring more people into the county, adding 3,500 new housing units by 2029, increasing health care access in northern Oconto County and increasing volunteerism by as much as 30% over the next three years.

Sellen acknowledged she doesn’t have the answers as to how to achieve these goals.

“This is me starting the conversation,” she said. “I’m confident we can find a way together.”

She concluded her remarks by unveiling the organization’s new name and branding. The group hired a consultant to help come up with ways to clarify confusion over the organization and its services — a private, nonprofit agency that promotes the county’s tourism industry and economic development.

“(The name) TEDCOR allows us to bring tourism and economic development all under the same pillar,” Sellen said. “Before, tourism was lost. Nobody knew that we did tourism. They had seen a ‘Oconto County Tourism’ logo-like thing, and they would assume it was a separate entity.”

The new identity will be rolled out over the next year, but the name change happened “right now, at this instant,” she said.

As the audience filed out, they were presented with a microfiber cloth for cleaning eyeglasses, with the new TEDCOR logo. Sellen said that particular bit of swag was chosen “so that we can see the vision a little bit clearer.”