WATERTOWN — Good things in terms of economic development have been happening in Dodge and Jefferson counties the past year, but the president of Thrive Economic Development (ThriveED) says she wishes her organization could get more representatives of successful area business and industry to toot their horns about it.

Victoria Pratt also stressed the need to get more prospective employees on the fringes back into the local workforce.

She made what has become a yearly presentation on the state of economic development in the area Tuesday morning at the Watertown Country Club. Her remarks were part of ThriveED’s annual meeting.

Pratt discussed the different areas of focus of ThriveED in the past year. These included business and workforce development, branding and marketing, as well as an effort to make the area more competitive locally, state, nationally and worldwide.

Pratt said that, from Sept. 1, 2018, through Aug. 30, ThriveED recorded 58 business “opportunities” it managed. Of these, 32 were in manufacturing, with five in professional services.

During that period, ThriveED conducted 25 confidential location searches, with 16 of these related to manufacturing businesses, five from the food and beverage industry, one from accommodation/recreation and three falling under an “other” classification. Two of the confidential searches were conducted in Dodge County, with 13 in Jefferson County. Ten were dual-county searches.

According to ThriveED statistics, 62 percent of new investment opportunities came directly from its clients.

“This proves we are making noise in the marketplace,” Pratt said.

It’s a goal of ThriveED to build a more competitive local landscape in which it can enhance the abilities of businesses in the area to prosper.

ThriveED is a non-profit 501©3 public-private organization created to promote the economic competitiveness of the Jefferson and Dodge County region by providing professional economic development services for the purpose of retaining, expanding and attracting capital investments and driver industry jobs to communities. It was formed in mid-2016 and engages the private sector in economic development activities.

Pratt said that among her firm’s “hot projects” in the past year have been two food-and-beverage business expansions, two manufacturing expansions that remain pending and one new retail project. There was one retail rehabilitation.

Pratt did not disclose the names of the businesses involved.

She told an audience of 70 area businesspeople that schools must be made aware of the need to educate students on what the local economy needs in terms of employees. She added that the youth population in the area has declined by 3.4 percent since 2011, leading to the need for more younger workers in the workforce.

Pratt discussed “best practices solutions” to finding workers, saying opportunities for teens to work must be created keeping in mind there must be more flexible part-time options. Chances for disabled people to enter the workforce must also be created, along with society making it easier for people with criminal records and veterans to become part of the workforce. Pratt said it is important to build a “talent pipeline” in schools and correctional institutions, the latter of which presents great institutional barriers to potential workers.

ThriveED’s branding, marketing and communications are meeting with success, according to the organization’s research, with Pratt and her colleagues making two-dozen presentations in the past year.

Perhaps most of all, Pratt said, ThriveED is pleased with the effectiveness of its website, a winner of the International Economic Development Council’s Award of Excellence.

As 2020 approaches, she reported, marketing plans include, “building (ThriveED’s) competitive message.”

Pratt said the top three assets the Dodge/Jefferson County region possesses for attracting business include its location within the state — among the cities of Madison and Milwaukee, Beloit/Janesville/Rockford and the Fox Valley. She said this region has excellent access to roadways and other transport amenities. The labor supply or “labor shed,” as it is called by ThriveED, also is an asset.

“The industry cluster strength of the area is also solid with good examples of ‘businesses supporting businesses’ well-established,” she said.

Discussing business-development outcomes that are so prized by ThriveED, Pratt said many have been achieved, but, to her frustration, many businesses are reluctant to discuss such triumphs.

“They’re just not ready to make any noise about it yet,” Pratt said, “and it’s driving me crazy.”

ThriveED’s 2020 marketing theme was introduced Tuesday: “Thrive In the Heart of the Heartland.”

“You will be seeing a lot more of that (theme) in the coming months and certainly in the next year,” Pratt said.

After Pratt’s address, District 38 State Assembly Rep. Barb Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc, introduced keynote speaker Bill Mitchell, former vice president of business operations for Americas for Foxconn Corp. Mitchell is now chief operating officer of MoreTalent Corp, a Pewaukee-based startup that offers artificial intelligence-based services to companies.

Mitchell discussed the fast-paced, ever-changing world of business in the state and how the globe seems to be “getting smaller,” due to vast improvements in how people communicate.

Mitchell is known for his success in helping develop organizations with strategic planning. During the past 25 years, he has worked with more than 500 corporations and organizations, helping develop practices that provide long-term success.

“We’ve got a world in our own hands, with cell phones,” Mitchell said, “and it’s rewiring our brains. I’m a person who doesn’t like change. But if you don’t change, you die.”

Mitchell packed a considerable amount of information into his keynote address, titled “The Evolution of Advanced Manufacturing and its Effect on Your Community,” with much of it based in large concepts and rooted in different stages of the world’s industrial revolutions.

A charismatic character from the El Paso, Texas, area with a penchant for humor and informality, Mitchell discussed artificial intelligence, its values and drawbacks.

Mitchell said AI can lead to “machine learning,” providing the capability of businesses to increase production efficiencies.

“Sometimes this freaks me out and scares me,” he said.

Mitchell said that there are times when increased production is not something that is best for a business. He urged those present to evaluate the situations they encounter at every level. He said they should determine whether there is value in making changes.

“In good strategic planning, you start at the end and work back to the beginning. Find out where you want to be in five years and ‘reverse engineer.’”

Mitchell closed his speech by stressing that value of reverse engineering.

“Have a strategic plan in place,” he said. “I think a realistic strategic plan today can project out to 18-24 months, with a review every six months and stay flexible. Have contingencies in place. Everything can change overnight, so diversify.”

Pratt said she appreciated people taking the time to attend the ThriveED annual event.

“This is a team sport we are involved in,” she said, “and together, we are going to keep pushing this forward.

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