VIROQUA — Mary Burke didn’t pull any punches Tuesday when talk turned toward Wisconsin’s economy.
The Democratic candidate for governor blasted Gov. Scott Walker for his record on job creation, saying Wisconsin has lost farms and struggled to create new businesses during her opponent’s time in office.
Burke underlined the importance of entrepreneurship and agriculture to Wisconsin’s economy as she toured the Food Enterprise Center, an incubator for local food and wellness-related businesses.
“We have to grow the economy,” Burke said. “And under Scott Walker we’re last, dead last in the Midwest, in terms of job creation.”
Burke also attended an event at Myrick Park hosted by the La Crosse Women’s Network, and is scheduled today to tour a La Crosse farm.
As Burke ventured through western Wisconsin touting her plans for improving Wisconsin’s economy, Gov. Scott Walker accused her of wasting $12.5 million in taxpayer money on a development deal with Abbott Labs that has yet to create any jobs.
Burke was state Commerce secretary under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle in 2006 when the state awarded a $12.5 million community block grant to purchase property in Kenosha County for the Illinois-based drugmaker.
But Abbott has yet to build anything on the property.
The Fortune 500 company’s purchase of 400 acres of land showed it had an interest in housing operations in Wisconsin, Burke said. She called the deal a “great opportunity.”
“It shows Scott Walker doesn’t understand what it takes to create jobs,” Burke said.
The nonprofit Food Enterprise Center in Viroqua houses 10 local businesses. Each fledging company operates out of the center, using a section of the 100,000-square-foot warehouse for shipping and receiving, manufacturing and office space. The property is managed by the Sue Noble, the executive director of the Vernon Economic Development Association.
“We provide the physical infrastructure for businesses to set up and expand,” Noble said.
Noble and her group opened the center about four years ago after remodeling an industrial facility abandoned by NCR Corp., a printing company. The center cost $4.2 million to develop, funded, in part, by a $2 million federal grant.
Entrepreneurs who use the center pay less rent than they would for similar facilities, and also receive one-on-one help from Noble, who has helped write grants for a number of building tenants.
“We are growing businesses and creating jobs,” Noble said, “and building back the community.”
Grasping a blue bottle of Baby Wipe Juice, Burke talked business with Rachel Wolf, the owner of LüSa Organics. The skin care product is made from ingredients such as organic flowers, olive oil and aloe vera juice.
Burke touted her 30-year career in private industry during the tour, including her time as an executive for Trek Bicycle. But it was her own experience in creating a new business that gives her an appreciation for the hardships of entrepreneurship, Burke said. The gubernatorial candidate started a New York-based business called Manhattan Intelligence, but the venture ran out of financing before becoming sustainable, Burke said.
“I know all the challenges,” Burke said.
Burke met with entrepreneurs from three of the center’s growing businesses: LüSa, Wisco Pop and Kickapoo Coffee.
Wolf said her business began as a hobby. Now her soaps and skin care products are crafted and stored in LüSa’s sliver of the Food Enterprise Center before being shipped across the globe. The center provides LüSa with the physical space to run her business, but the company is still too small to support overhead costs such as health insurance. Her family is still uninsured because options available under the federal health insurance exchange are too expensive, Wolf said.
“We’re in this sort of no-man’s land between poverty and abundance,” Wolf said.
The Viroqua business center is an example of the kind of resource that Wisconsin needs to improve its track record when it comes to supporting entrepreneurs, Burke said.