ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT – Tourist-powered growth – Tri-county region sees increase in visitor volume; lakes and golf courses a big draw

Boating in Green Lake County is one of the popular activities that draws tourist dollars to the tri-county region. Manufacturing and agriculture also are key economic drivers in the area.

Loni Meiborg, executive director of the Green Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t shy away from the facts: The community, which surrounds the deepest inland lake in Wisconsin, is all about tourism.

“We’ve always called ourselves a tourist town,” she says. “For at least six months of the year, our community depends on tourists.”

In 2011, those visitors helped increase the county’s tourism spending by more than 13 percent for a total of $32.7 million. Neighboring Marquette County saw its tourism spending increase by 13.34 percent in 2011, up to $18.1 million. Waushara County, which lies just north of Green Lake County, saw its overall tourism spending fall by 2 percent in 2011, but those visitors still spent an estimated $59 million, according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

Tourists are attracted to the region’s many lakes, golf courses and overall quiet lifestyle, Meiborg says. Most visitors come from Chicago’s northern suburbs, Madison and Milwaukee.

“Madison is just over an hour away. We have really seen an increase in the number of people coming from that area,” she adds. “They have discovered or re-discovered what we have to offer.”

One of the area’s draws to both leisure and business travelers is the Heidel House Resort & Spa. The Green Lake resort was named the 2012 Best of MidAmerica award from Meetings Focus Magazine as a top destination for meetings. The full-service resort offers a luxurious spa and year-round recreational activities.

“One of our greatest attractions for guests is our location right on the shores of Big Green Lake,” says Michelle Van Kirk, marketing manager for the Heidel House. “This sets us apart for business events because Heidel House Resort is one of the only Wisconsin conference venues to offer lake views directly from meeting spaces. Our location, amenities and service result in successful meetings that increase inspiration and production in event attendees.”

Van Kirk says 2012 has been a great year for the resort with an increase in both leisure and business travelers.

Besides Heidel House, Green Lake is also home to the Green Lake Conference Center, a Christian conference and leadership center, which can host up to 1,000 people. The center is also home to the noted Golf Courses of Lawsonia. The center recently added a ropes course, which can be used for teambuilding activities.

“Everyone is feeling positive right now about the impact of tourism on the local economy,” Meiborg says. “For the first two quarters of 2012, our room tax revenues are up substantially.”

Reusing old spaces

Tourism is only one driver of the local economy in the tri-county region, says Bill Wheeler, executive director of the Tri-County Regional Economic Development Corporation. Manufacturing and agriculture also play a role.

One theme Wheeler has seen in the past couple of years is that companies and organizations are expanding into previously empty facilities. For example, EuroPlast LLC, a plastic injection molding company in Endeavor, purchased equipment and a new product line and then opened a new facility in Westfield to house the additional business. Seventeen new jobs were created.

Magnum Products LLC, a supplier of powerful, high-quality light towers, mobile generators, trash pumps, water trailers and combination power units in Berlin, is also leasing additional space to handle its increased growth.

“We are running out of empty industrial buildings and I think we will soon begin seeing companies putting up new facilities,” Wheeler says. “The mood is positive and we’re not only seeing local expansions, but also interest from outside of the area.”

Another building finding new life is the Green Lake Town Square, which is owned by The Cornerstone Project, a non-profit organization. The group took the historic Green Lake County Courthouse and transformed it into a community center. About half of the building’s 60,000-square-feet have been renovated, Wheeler says.

The building has four categories of tenants – arts and culture; health and wellness; energy and environment; and workforce and education. Meiborg is excited about the old jail kitchen being renovated into a commercial kitchen that can be rented out to entrepreneurs. “That is going to open up more possibilities to businesses just starting out,” she says.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison also has a resource room onsite and plans to host a variety of lectures in the old courtroom.

“The Green Lake Town Square isa nice addition to the area and willnot only benefit local residents, but also serve as an attraction, too,” Wheeler says.

ON THE WEB

Tri-County Regional Economic Development Corporation: www.tcredc.org

Green Lake Area Chamber of Commerce:  www.visitgreenlake.com

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