Better transportation and housing options are needed if the local economy is to continue in its fast-paced growth mode.
That was theme of Monday’s “Navigating the New Economy: the Booming Border” economic forum at Kenosha’s Civil War Museum.
While Kenosha County and much of the southeastern sector of the state have grown, with more companies relocating across the Illinois border, creating more jobs, the next phase of the growth should feature more transportation and housing to fulfill the needs of the people who have come into the region, a panel of state and local experts said.
Referring to Kenosha County, Wisconsin Revenue Secretary Peter Barca said, “Location, location, location,” has helped to make a difference. “Kenosha County had room to expand,” he said.
He noted that 342 new businesses have come to Wisconsin. Kenosha County has experienced 14.9 percent growth and has created 11,600 new jobs.
State Rep. Tod Ohnstad, D-Kenosha, a former auto industry union official and alderman, said the region has experienced “one of the greatest expansions in the United States.”
He cited how Kenosha County has remade itself through the transition from its heavy industry and automotive economy to a more diversified one with a mixture of high tech and light manufacturing.
The panelists noted that Wisconsin has progressed somewhat at the expense of Illinois.
“We are running a lot faster than Illinois,” said Carthage College economics professor Cassie Lau said.
Barca said that while there has been population growth in Kenosha County, there has been a drop in population in Lake County, Ill.
State Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem Lakes, said the economic development has come partly because the local communities are not competing against each other. There has been collaboration among governmental and economic development bodies, she said.
However, the growth has come with new challenges regarding education, transportation and housing.
Regarding education, panelists noted there is a skills gap that needs to be addressed.
The answer must come through more collaboration between industry, the educational institutions and government. To keep pace with the current growth, “It’s not about today. It’s about tomorrow,” Kerkman said.
Heather Wessling, vice president of economic development for the Kenosha Area Business Alliance, said the local colleges are connected to jobs in the area through their training programs and the relationship they have with employers.
As a result, “kids can come back to opportunities,” she said.
Wessling said it would help to have more transportation options.
“We have to be more creative with transportation and housing,” she said.
Lau agreed, saying companies could be more flexible by adjusting work schedules around the bus schedules.
Meanwhile, Kenosha County continues to have a shortage of housing inventory, and slowing home sales have prompted a rise in the median price of houses.
“We have to make Kenosha a place where people want to live not just a place to work,” Ohnstad said.
The session was sponsored by the Wisconsin Academy of Global Education and Training in partnership with WisBusiness and the Kenosha News.