JUNEAU — For ThriveED to reach new successes and be more accountable, some Dodge County executive committee members want the economic development organization to have goals in place to attract new businesses.
Although the committee will revisit the issue at its meeting next month, some members asked ThriveED on Thursday for some “measurables” when it came to their work in Dodge County.
Deb Reinbold, ThriveED managing director of business development, said 2020 was a difficult year for economic development.
She said the organization partnered with the Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to provide help for “forward facing service providers” such as caterers, hair salons, massage therapists, restaurants and Main Street retail businesses, who were forced to close March 17 because of the pandemic.
Reinbold said on April 1 ThriveED launched its back-to-business program.
“We used the ThirveED website to provide an essential location for people to access the most current information available regarding resources, available grant amounts, unemployment assistance and legislative guidelines,” she said.
Reinbold said the organization was able to document assistance to 62 contacts or businesses in Dodge County and also witnessed a significant increase in traffic to its website. Of the 62 businesses in Dodge County, half (31) were in Beaver Dam.
“Although the logistics were challenging, we continued to meet our existing businesses throughout the county. There were 24 businesses that we met within Dodge County. Existing businesses are our priority as they offer the greatest opportunity for new investment,” Reinbold said. “Typically, 80% of new business growth will come from these existing businesses.”
Reinbold said ThriveED managed to visit 24 companies that were scattered in Dodge County, including eight in Watertown.
“We work with communities to identify their strengths and suggest improvements. Track trends to best position our communities to grow. Develop programs to support the needs of the growing area companies. Provide businesses with market research, feasibility studies and business plan development,” Reinbold said. “Connect businesses to technical and professional resources. Identify grants, tax cuts and low-interest loan options for expanding businesses.”
She said ThriveED also assists businesses with the municipal process.
“We want businesses to focus on what they do every day. We do this every day — working with muncipalities,” Reinbold said. “We work with them and we know how this process works. We market the county’s strengths to companies, site selectors, commercial real estate brokers and trusted advisors.”
County supervisor Jeff Schmitt wasn’t sold and questioned how success is measured with ThriveED.
“I appreciate the presentation today, but we just had one in October and then we had a lengthy one in November,” Schmitt said. “And almost nothing is new or breathtaking.”
Schmitt said the county should terminate its agreement with ThriveED
“At that point and time if people want to come to the table and negotiate for better terms and elements within the contract that will give us quantifiable data I can get behind that and extend it (the agreement),” Schmitt said. “I just feel like we’re throwing money out the window.”
Dodge County entered into a contract with ThriveEd in 2017. It runs through 2022.
During the first year, the county paid $85,000 to ThriveED, which was raised to $134,000 in 2019. Last November, ThriveED Executive Director Vicki Pratt requested an additional $20,000 to assist with marketing, but the county board turned it down.
Schmitt said Dodge County has been in the agreement for three years.
“We should be able to do the math and say, ’These contacts led to X-Y-Z improvements, which has led to an increase in our tax base or employment records or housing units within Dodge County and we’re actually recuperating our costs.”
Supervisor Dan Hilbert disagreed.
“Economic development is hard to have a value put on it, but we don’t have a lot of other things going that are trying to help us,” Hilbert said. “Dodge County needs some things like this. It’s hard to sit here and justify we don’t want to participate in economic development in Dodge County. That would be a mistake. I would be for continuing our relationship with ThriveED only from the standpoint we have nothing else going except Dodge County being on a map on a webpage somewhere. We need other people to be cheerleaders to try and help.”
Supervisor Kira Sheahan-Malloy said there are people in Dodge County whose specific job in their municipalities is to find businesses and support them.
“This almost comes off as a duplication of services or cut the competition with services in the county,” she said. “Just this number alone of 62 businesses helped in a 365-day measurement or 24 visits in 365 days (is not enough). I think finding some measurables we can agree on is not unreasonable.”
Hilbert said it’s important to know what the county is getting for their money.
“It’s also important in our relationship to have these as our expectations rather than leaving ThriveED to not know what our expectations are and thinking they are meeting the goals when we haven’t set anything forward as an expectation,” Sheahan-Malloy said.
Dodge County Administrator Jim Mielke told the committee ThriveED will provide updates on a quarterly basis with the next one in April.