Local Food Drives Small Business Growth in Southwest Wisconsin
When the NCR manufacturing plant in Viroqua, a small town of 4,400 people in rural Wisconsin, shut its doors in 2009 after more than 40 years in business, the community was stunned. The region had just experienced two national disaster declarations for excessive flooding in what was already one of the lowest-income areas of Wisconsin. The closing of NCR - a company that manufactured ATM machines - meant the loss of 81 good-paying jobs. The 100,000 square-foot printing facility and its fifteen acres of land sat empty in the local industrial park.
That is, until the Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA) negotiated with NCR and acquired the property. VEDA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization funded by memberships and committed to creating new community wealth through business development and job creation. The region has a strong agricultural sector and a particularly high concentration of organic producers and farmers utilizing sustainable practices.
Sue Noble, Executive Director of VEDA, is revitalizing the local economy around local and regional food systems by turning the former NCR plant into the Food Enterprise Center, a multi-tenant facility for food businesses to start up or expand. Today, an entirely new type of community asset is emerging. New jobs are being created. New opportunities are being planned and captured. Connections between rural growers and consumers, both local and in the region's urban centers, are growing stronger. "This facility is a tremendous resource to the agricultural industry in our region," says Noble. "It provides the aggregation, storage, processing and distribution infrastructure to help small producers increase their market opportunities and business capacity. We're creating jobs, increasing the tax base and engaging our own local entrepreneurs to grow the economy."
The Food Enterprise Center functions as a hub for several food-related businesses. With freezer/cooler space, processing equipment, loading docks, a commercial kitchen and other common shared spaces, the facility is helping small businesses access infrastructure and equipment they couldn't afford to purchase on their own. The first three tenants include Keewaydin Organics, a food hub that aggregates produce from 60 local growers and distributes it to stores and restaurants under the "Just Local" brand label; LuSa Organics, a manufacturer of body care products made from ingredients like honey, sugar, goats' milk and herbs; and the Fifth Season Cooperative. Fifth Season is a multi-stakeholder group that connects producers of locally grown produce, meat and dairy with schools and other institutions that want to buy local food for their cafeterias or restaurants. VEDA helped launch the cooperative with the help of a Buy Local Buy Wisconsin grant. Because it is jointly managed by a group of producers, processors, workers, distributors and buyers, the cooperative is able to set prices at the beginning of the season, providing area growers with a secure market for their products.
The businesses at the Food Enterprise Center support at least 15 jobs. More than $110,000 in local investment has been leveraged through the Cooperative's Class B Investor Stock to build initial equity. Raising capital for the center's structural renovations and tenant build-outs was a huge challenge; VEDA facilitated a complex financing package that included a $2.3 million Midwest Disaster Area Bond with participation from five banks across three counties, TIF revenues from the City of Viroqua, grants from utilities, foundations and the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, more than $200,000 in local private investment, and federal support. VEDA secured $2 million from the Economic Development Administration and $100,000 from USDA's RBEG program.
More renovation needs to be done to repair the roof, docks and parking lot and to create a training room for business classes. Potential tenants are working through business plans and financing options while considering designs for their new space in the Food Enterprise Center. Approximately 50,000 square feet is still open for lease.
Noble adds, "We're turning the food movement into action. We've created a facility and a network that welcomes investors, grows food businesses and attracts food entrepreneurs to the coolest place in the world to locate a business!"