April 16, 2016

Food-processing industry hungry for Kenosha County

By James Lawson
Kenosha News

As the last vestiges of the heavy manufacturing industry have gradually departed, Kenosha County has undergone an economic transformation.

It is turning into a diverse center of light manufacturing, distribution, warehousing and — perhaps surprisingly — food production and processing.

Like a caterpillar that transforms into a beautiful butterfly, Kenosha County’s food production companies are morphing into a new economic development story that features job creation. In turn, those companies are serving as a magnet that is attracting even more companies.

From meats to cheeses, juices to chocolates, bottled water, pasta and much more, Kenosha County and southeastern Wisconsin have become a hotbed for food production.

While some of the companies make consumer products, others produce private-label goods, and some are business-to-business operations making ingredients for other food producers.

Big numbers

The Kenosha Area Business Alliance reports that food manufacturers and processors have created more than 1,300 jobs in the county, with an annual payroll of $51.86 million. When suppliers, distributors and other related firms are counted, the industry accounts for nearly 3,000 jobs.

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development reports that food manufacturing in Kenosha County has increased 22 percent from the third quarter of 2006 to the third quarter of 2015. Industry growth went up 11 percent from 2012 to 2015.

“Kenosha County qualifies as a region that enjoys a competitive advantage in food processing, supply chain support for food processing including distribution,” said Heather Wessling, KABA’s vice president of economic development. “Companies decide to locate based on large freshwater supply — Ocean Spray and Niagara (Bottling) depend on our ample supply from being steps from Lake Michigan.

“Our cost of living is lower in Wisconsin versus many other locations nearby (Chicago market), yet we offer same or better advantages for producing and moving food and beverage products.”

Specifically, Wessling said companies cite Kenosha County’s presence and access to I-94 and immediate availability of developmental sites along I-94, as well its proximity to manufacturers and major retailers throughout the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor. She said the area also has a strong regional workforce and long history in food manufacturing.

Attracting companies

While Calumet Diversified Meats, Kenosha Beef/Birchwood Foods and Ocean Spray have a long history here, several companies were attracted to Kenosha County because of the economic development efforts of Milwaukee 7, KABA, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and others.

Shelly Jurewicz, executive director of Food and Beverage-Wisconsin, an industry cluster organization that also acts as an economic development unit for the industry, said southeastern Wisconsin is the “gateway into the state and to Chicago as well as Milwaukee. It’s a good distribution location for companies.”

Jurewicz noted that companies that have crossed the Illinois border could easily do so because they could move an operation and not disrupt their workforce. Moreover, some companies establish operations here because Wisconsin is second in organic production only to California.

Wisconsin’s reputation as a dairy state also is an attraction. Puratos Chocolate USA, a division of the Belgium-based parent company, established a headquarters in Kenosha County because of the dairy industry.

A satisfied newcomer

Kurt Penn, CEO and founder of Good Foods Group, relocated his company to Pleasant Prairie from Chicago. Earlier this year, Atlanta-based Gourmet Goods International, a producer of cheeses and related products, announced it was establishing an operation here.

Penn noted that several key factors prompted his move, including easy access to produce, transportation and industry suppliers.

“There is a mature supplier network for raw materials and supplies,” Penn said. “Our first choice was to stay in Illinois. People had to uproot their families. (Wisconsin) wasn’t our first choice, but it became the compelling choice. I really liked the idea of a state that was proactive.”

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