RACINE COUNTY — A decade ago, the Racine County Economic Development Corp. didn’t have many resources or connections outside of the U.S. So, its representatives started going to trade shows in Europe and rubbing elbows at international hubs like Chicago, seeking potential foreign businesses to plant roots in southeastern Wisconsin.
As the years have gone on, the way that the RCEDC connects with prospective overseas partners abroad has changed. Statewide initiatives, like the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s “global reach” efforts, have allowed the RCEDC to do more work without exiting the county, no longer needing to fly all the way to Germany for networking.
Foxconn found southeastern Wisconsin through a “large site selector,” said RCEDC Business Development Manager Laura Million, while the Italian Centro Sperimentale del Latte (a.k.a. ProBio) already had a potential employee residing in Racine County. That contact helped direct the biotech company toward Caledonia, where it is expected to create 40 jobs in the next five years.
After finding a municipality, businesses like CSL/PrioBio are able to use RCEDC to make connections with American banks, attorneys who understand international commerce and local construction companies to lay the groundwork for a U.S. branch.
For example, CSL is working with a law firm based in Chicago, but with strong Japanese ties.
The goal of the firm — Masuda, Funai, Eifert & Mitchell LTD — is to “remove barriers and ease the process for … international companies to enter the U.S. on their terms,” according to its website.
Diversifying Racine’s portfolio
International businesses help diversify the county’s economy, Million said. According to the labor market data aggregator Emsi, “a diversified economy is a resilient economy.”
In an article published in June 2018, Emsi highlighted Madison as the most industry-diverse city in America. In that same study, Racine’s economy was considered relatively undiverse: ranking 307th out of 382 cities. Milwaukee finished in the upper third, being considered 97th most diversified.
Although the majority of the jobs and growth in the county come from existing businesses, Million was quick to point out that new companies — both domestic and foreign — expand tax bases. Not to mention, new businesses provide new opportunities for people already living here, while also attracting workers who don’t already live here.
As businesses put out feelers in potential U.S. markets, the RCEDC’s most significant task is identifying where the business could lay a foundation.
“As they narrow down the sites, we look at the kinds of assistance needed to get them to that site,” Million explained.
For many businesses that have an interest in Racine County, Million says that the major selling points are the location within the Milwaukee-Chicago corridor. There are multiple nearby international airports, access to the Great Lakes and close proximity to the Interstate, as well as relatively cheap land prices compared to settling nearer to a big city.
Some local representatives, including Caledonia village trustees Fran Martin and Jay Benkowski, have raised questions about the RCEDC’s behind-closed-doors practices of negotiations with businesses.
“I really question whether the return we’re getting on our investment is fully worthwhile,” Benkowski said at a Village Board meeting in January.
Caledonia has a $40,000-a-year contract RCEDC. Mount Pleasant, which has been attracting more international businesses in recent years and where Foxconn is going, pays almost triple that — $118,000 — according to RCEDC Executive Director Jenny Trick.
Benkowski and Martin both said they want more knowledge of the RCEDC’s negotiations with companies as they progress, rather than being pulled in at the end of the process.
But Million has maintained that this hush-hushness, often involving nondisclosure agreements between municipal leaders and businesses, is necessary for negotiations. If the public finds out about a potential development too early on, it could scare off an interested party.
“It has to be that way,” Caledonia Trustee Kevin Wanggaard said.
What happened with Jacquet?
While the RCEDC has more control regarding incentive packages and resource-finding, it has no bearing on the ebbs and flows of international markets.
Million said that was one of the reasons France-based Jacquet Midwest pulled out of its planned relocation to the Southside Industrial Park in the City of Racine.
“International global business issues that may delay a project, those are things that we’re trying to keep a pulse on,” Million said.
She wouldn’t go into the details of what made Jacquet officials change their mind, but since the metal processor still has a presence in Racine County at 1908 DeKoven Ave., Million said there’s still a chance a new deal at another location could rise from the ashes of the scrapped $12 million plan.
“As (foreign businesses) narrow down the sites, we look at the kinds of assistance needed to get them to that site.” Laura Million, Racine County Economic development Corp.