SPOONER, Wis. -- For our 7th Dock Talk segment, we sat down with the Executive Director for the Washburn County Economic Development Corporation, Joel Zimmerman, for a cup of joe and a chat at our favorite coffeehouse, The Dock Coffee, in downtown Spooner.  

What are you drinking?

Arnold Palmer (1/2 ice tea 1/2 lemonade)

Not much of a coffee drinker? 

Oh, I am. I frequently like to drink some coffee with my sugar and cream, but it’s a warm morning and I’m looking for something cool and refreshing.

So you are the Executive Director for the Washburn County Economic Development Corporation. 1st, what exactly does the WCEDC do?

The main mission of the WCEDC is to expand the tax base in Washburn County, but that doesn’t really answer your question. The focus and function of the WCEDC changes with the times. Our consistent functions are helping new businesses start, existing businesses expand, and attracting new businesses to the County. However, over time, there has become somewhat of a labor shortage in NW Wisconsin so working on bringing talented workers to the area is also a goal of ours. I also keep an eye on legislation and how it may affect the Economic growth of Washburn County. Washburn County has a population that continues to age, so we also need to work on retaining or attracting young people to the area. All this hinges on one main deficiency we have in Washburn County, and that’s reliable and affordable high speed broadband internet. It is no longer an amenity, but a utility. The internet is not just good for streaming videos or checking Facebook anymore. It’s necessary for filing for unemployment in the State of Wisconsin, for making businesses efficient and competitive, for schoolwork, and for working from home. So, the WCEDC is committed to continuing to work on finding real solutions to making sure that all of Washburn County is able to connect at high speeds to be economically competitive with other regions.

As Executive Director, what is that you do?

When people come to the office looking for assistance in starting or expanding their business, I start by connecting them with the best person to help with their business plan creation. I also help point them in the direction of financial assistance, whether it is with local lending institutions, the WCIDA revolving loan funds, or a combination of both. I perform the functions of the WCEDC listed in the previous question. I basically do anything I can to support the businesses and industries in our area. Almost any communication that comes out of the WCEDC office comes from my desk. I’ve attended Heart of the North Days on behalf of the County to advocate for further rural broadband expansion. In addition, I’ve been asked to speak at various public, municipal, and trade groups to discuss the state of the economy in Washburn County, in addition to speaking about the demographics of our area. Since the retirement of a key position in Washburn County Extension, I have taken on the role of researching and distributing the demographic information. This is key information to any business wanting to move here, start here, or expand here, and it’s a role that we could not afford to lose. In addition to anything that can come up in a day at the office, I’ve taken a phone call from someone asking if I knew where they could dispose of their truck topper as well. While I could say that it’s not my job to find that out for someone, my nature is to help and I want people to know and understand that we are friendly, and here to help. If, after this is published, I get a ton of calls asking me this question, I may have to find out where to refer them, but I’ll do it with a smile on my face, either way.

How long have you been the Executive Director?

1 year as of August 1st. So, the answers to many of your questions will continue to develop as time goes on.

With your '1 year' on the horizon, what were some of your successes this past year? 

First and foremost, we are on the cusp of reliable high speed broadband begin to expand in our County. This process obviously takes time, and I get that it’s discouraging that we are in 2017 and there are so many people with dial-up speeds at best. The process takes some time for a variety of reasons, but I feel like we are closer than ever to having this dream become a reality. In addition, we hosted our first EDC banquet celebrating the businesses in the area for what they do, from things like customer service to community involvement and a myriad of things in between. We’ve also started workshops and seminars to help businesses leaders and those thinking of starting their own businesses to learn something helpful and new. The ideas of these topics come from people in Washburn County. I find experts on those topics and we are able to offer these seminars free to our members and at a small cost to those that have not yet become WCEDC members. In addition, in the past year, we’ve been able to work with the WCIDA in approving loans totaling well over a half million dollars to help new and existing businesses. This has led to job growth of approximately 30 jobs as well. This is exciting news as the year prior, 0 dollars were obtained. I want to highlight the fact that this was done through a partnership of the WCEDC and the WCIDA, and is not solely the result of the WCEDC. This is an important partnership for the County, and it is evident that a strong partnership between organizations leads to positive results for the residents and companies in our area. Another success that I would count, is that I am starting to get calls from other EDCs around the State asking how we are doing what we’re doing, stating that they’re being given our contact information from State Agencies as a model of things working. I’m certainly flattered by that idea, I have no idea where that information is coming from, but it has been a great experience working with others and collaborating on ideas.

If you split your 1st year into two halves, how would you compare the 1st 6 months to your last 6 months?

The first 6 months were 6 months of constant learning and listening. The second 6 months, have been the same. The next 6 months, I would anticipate being the same way. Look, I’m not here to take anything over, I’m not here to pretend that I know more than anyone else or that I have the magical solution to the issues that need attention. I’m here to gather thoughts, ideas, opinions, and facts. Then I work to collaborate to find solutions. I wish I could solve every issue we have, and every issue that every company or manufacturer has. Maybe in the next 10 years, we’ll get closer to that, but for now, it’s all about the working together and listening piece.

What are a few things you are going to be focusing on for your 2nd year?

Everything I did the first year, I will continue focusing on this second year. I do want to continue to modernize our office, the way we do things and find efficiency in everything we do so that we can accomplish as much as possible. We are a small staffed organization so anything we do needs to be done efficiently.

What’s the one question you get asked most often? 

When is my house/cabin/business going to get broadband? I wish that was a question I could answer for everyone. I have people calling me all the time indicating that they have a cabin in Washburn County, and that they want to sell their house in the Twin Cities and move to their Cabin, and they can continue their job by working from home. The only thing keeping them from moving here, is the lack of connection speed they need to work from home. The thing about Washburn County is that we are a destination people want to move to…. they just cannot do it yet. I get at least one call a week like this, and one week, I received 6 calls like this in one day. I admit to feeling impatient on the progress of this topic, but the reality is we’ve made some big headway in partnerships in the last several months to really see something happen and take off. But it would be nice to have an answer for everyone that was more definite and immediate.

I was not aware that the WCEDC plays a role in broadband for the area.

It hasn’t much in the past. There was a period of time a couple of years ago that it was being worked on. But we are at a point where it is clearly evident that to prosper, we need to work on this issue now.

Do you like what you do? 

I love what I do. No hesitancy here. I love what I do. My motivation? My 5-year-old daughter. I want this area to be a place that when she finishes college, if she wants to return home, there’ll be opportunities for her to return home. Don’t get me wrong, I know that I won’t be able to force her to move back home…but if she wants to, she should be able to. I grew up in Duluth, and I loved the fact that no matter where or what I went to college for, I knew I could move back to Duluth and there’d most likely be a job for me. The pressure was off. It turns out I stayed in that area for my undergraduate degree, and then didn’t move back after my masters, but, hey…this is my home now. Two things about me are that no matter what I’m doing, I need to be making a difference in people’s lives and community, and I need to believe in what it is that I’m doing. This job allows me to do all of that, and I fully believe in the goals of the WCEDC. I’m honored to have been chosen by the board, to lead.

If someone wanted to contact you, what is the best way to do that? 

There are many reasons someone may need to get ahold of me and I welcome them to do so. I’d prefer questions relating to truck topper disposal go to someone else, but nonetheless, I can be reached via email at joelz@washburncountyedc.org, phone 715-635-8242, and follow us on Facebook for updates and events. Any individual or business wanting to become a member of the WCEDC should contact me. We are a 501c3, therefore, memberships and contributions are tax deductible. We cannot do what we do without the important partnerships we have with our local businesses.

What are 3 things about you people might not know?

  1. I used to announce for US Figure Skating.
  2. I once had the honor of laying the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
  3. Once when I was returning from Liberia, the authorities in the Accra, Ghana airport took our passports and told us to leave the airport.  When group representatives went into the security office to discuss this problem, there were stacks of passports sitting there.  I don't know what happened but we got ours back and we're allowed to fly back to the US.

About: The Dock Talk is an every-other Tuesday segment where we chat with a member of our community in a Q-and-A format over a cup of coffee at our favorite coffeehouse, The Dock Coffee. If you would like information on how you can be featured in our next Dock Talk, please email DrydenWire@gmail.com.  

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