VEDA could be model for job creation in poor economy

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Rufus Haucke talks about his enterprise, Keewaydin Organics, which rents space in the former NCR building, now the Food Enterprise Center. (County Line photo)

By KAREN PARKER | County Line Editor

The future of job creation may look a lot like the former NCR building in Viroqua. In 2009, NCR, a global corporation, pulled up stakes and moved its Viroqua operation to Tennessee. With it went 81 decent-paying jobs, a loss Vernon County could ill afford. In its wake was left a 100,000-square-foot building so huge one ought to carry refreshments for the hike around it.

The building should have been well on its way to deterioration by now, as a structure of that size is a white elephant in rural Wisconsin, even more so in these times.

But then a strange thing happened before the building crumbled to dust. The Vernon Economic Development Association bought it and came up with a plan that, depending on your viewpoint, is absolutely nuts or a stroke of genius.

VEDA’s mission, according to its own publicity, is to “draw together community leaders and business executives from throughout Vernon County to create and advance a cohesive new strategic plan to build a stronger economy for the good of all the people with a stake in the future of Vernon County.”

In other words, to put it less politely, if we are going to be flushed down the economic toilet, we are not going quietly.

Of course, business people don’t have the time to do the legwork to run an organization like VEDA; consequently, the face of the group is Sue Noble. Some readers may recall when she worked with Terry Whipple for the Juneau County Development Corporation.

Noble seems to have an uncanny ability to twist arms and seek out funding opportunities. Using a combination of grants, loans, bonding and private donations, VEDA rustled up in excess of $4 million to develop the NCR structure into what they call a Food Enterprise Center.

Noble came into my life last fall, when I asked her to facilitate a group interested in exploring what might be done to revitalize Ontario. She has faithfully stuck with us for many months, even though our plans are small scale and little more than a rounding error compared to the NCR project.

Although I had heard and read about the NCR project, last Thursday was my first opportunity to see the real thing. The occasion was the presentation of an award by staff from the regional office of the Small Business Administration (SBA) to Noble. The award, Home-Based-Business Champion, probably does not mean a lot to most people. But for the 10 people who started businesses after working with Noble in the Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club and for the NCR building tenants, it means a lot.

Not everyone is destined or capable of self-employment, but with manufacturing jobs gone abroad and a lifeless economy at home, necessity is the mother of invention. As one who stumbled into self-employment 30 years ago and never went back, I know of which I speak.

The first tenants in the old NCR building are evidence that, yes indeed, everything old is new again. We had our flirtation with manufacturing, but when that ended, we are once again rekindling our love affair with agriculture.

It was hard to ignore Rufus Haucke’s bubbling enthusiasm as we toured his section of the Food Enterprise Center. Haucke launched Keewaydin Organics on his family’s farm, and over the past five years, he has gathered together 70 producers who supply produce to grocery stores and restaurants. A recently installed commercial kitchen will allow his company to wash and cut produce to match the demands of customers and to eventually develop its own line of products.

At the other end of the building, Fifth Season Cooperative is supplying food to institutions such as the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center and working on a contract basis with Reinhart Foods.

Both businesses are tailgating on the buy-local phenomenon that is sweeping the nation. The quality of food does not improve, we have learned, when it spends hours and days on trucks before arriving at our table. The average food item spends 4-7 days from picking to supermarket shelf. It has put on an average of 1,500 miles, and only 18 cents of every dollar spent on it will go to the grower. The system depends on cheap fossil fuels to sustain itself. But that’s not working out so great, as you may have noticed if you spend time at the grocery store checkout.

Fresh food year round in a state with a limited growing season is not too likely, but certainly a large percentage of the food we consume could come from local producers. And with that food comes jobs. Haucke estimated that in the next two years he would add 10-12 employees to the half dozen he now has in the business.

As Noble pointed out, the Food Enterprise Center gives ambitious innovative people like Haucke an opportunity to develop a business without investing in all of the trappings. Tenants at the center can share loading docks, forklifts, employee restrooms, meeting rooms and other items. Though those costs are still built into the rent, they are not as staggering as would be the initial investment.

Additionally, help is available to create business plans, uncover funding sources, and network with fellow entrepreneurs who are facing many of the same obstacles.

Conservatives who resent the interference of government should love VEDA. Its existence depends on the kindness of strangers. A non-profit 501(c), the organization works only because local government, businesses and individuals have contributed to its coffers. With only one employee and donated office space, it operates on a shoestring budget. Still, in its short life, its accomplishments are impressive.

If you’re looking for a place for spare cash before Uncle Sam takes it away from you, VEDA ought to be on your list. As they say, donations are tax deductible.

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Small Business Administration Regional Administrator Marianne Markowitz (left) presents to Susan Noble, executive director of the Vernon Economic Development Association, an award Thursday for being a home-based-business champion. (County Line photo)


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