The Vernon Economic Development Association’s history and accomplishments of the past year, along with a discussion of the current COVID-19 and possible future area business climate, were the highlights of the organization’s July 15 annual meeting on Zoom.
VEDA Board of Directors President Mike Breckel recounted the history of VEDA beginning with its incorporation as a non-profit 501©3 organization in 2006, Sue Noble’s hiring as its executive director in 2007, and the organization’s purchase of the former NCR building in Viroqua in 2009. In 2010 VEDA received an EDA grant to upgrade and turn the former factory into the award-winning Food Enterprise Center which today rents space to 27 entrepreneurial businesses providing over 90 jobs. The center has received numerous honors including the Wisconsin EDA’s Best Practices Recognition in 2013 and Wisconsin’s Top Rural Development Initiative award from Wisconsin Rural Partners in 2014.
Executive Director Sue Noble was recognized by the White House in July 2011 as a Rural Champion of Change at a meeting with Secretary Vilsack and President Obama in Washington D.C. In June 2012 she received the Small Business Administration (SBA) Home Based Business Champion Award for Wisconsin and six states in the Midwest region. She shared VEDA’s accomplishments from the past year including:
- Assisting more than 200 businesses within and beyond Vernon County;
- Partnering with General Mills to bring a team of seven resource specialists from their venture capital division, 301INC in Minneapolis, to offer technical assistance to 17 local business owners in a daylong event;
- Holding a workshop on retaining local businesses through employee ownership; by partnering with the UW Center for Cooperatives based in Madison;
- Holding an educational workshop on industrial hemp which included how it’s grown and markets for it. Participants came from as far away as Milwaukee and Janesville;
- Facilitating the Inventors & Entrepreneurs Club, now in its 12th year, which has helped create 12 businesses and 35 jobs;
- Holding community conversations regarding flood recovery in Ontario;
- Helping access COVID-related grants for 15 businesses.
- Enabling Community Hunger Solutions, under VEDA’s non-profit status, to provide over 300,000 lbs. of food to food pantries in our tri-county area and to provide hunger relief to families by distributing more than 100 boxes per week through its Friday Farms to Families Food Box Program;
- Managing the operations of the Food Enterprise Center to support business expansions. Tenants currently renting space in the building for their business operations are B&Es Trees, Community Hunger Solutions, Driftless Co-Option, Driftless Provisions, Fifth Season Co-op, Fizzeology, Hemp Science, Kismet Bakers, Lusa Organics, Nami Chips, Oppenworks, REACH, River Valley Burgers, Scotchwood Candy Company, Shade Haven, Sky Moon Imports, Sole Expressions, Wisco Pop, and Wonderstate Coffee (formerly Kickapoo Coffee). Storage-only tenants are Earthfire Products, Ethos Green Power, E3 Lighting, GoMacro, Hansen Diversified, Mastodon Farms, Organic Valley, and Viroqua Food Co-op.
In other business, VEDA Secretary Dave Maxwell presented the minutes of last year’s annual meeting, and VEDA Treasurer Kay Buck gave the financial report for fiscal 2019. The following four Board members were also re-elected to serve new 3-year terms: Kathy Neidert, Dave Maxwell, Christie Scannella and George Wilbur. Jenny Seiler is our newest member elected to join the Board and also serve a three-year term.
In the discussion following the regular portion of the annual meeting, attendees addressed the current business climate in Vernon County due to COVID-19. Christina Dollhausen, Vernon County Economic Development & Tourism Coordinator, said specifics on business closures are unclear at this time, and she has been working on attracting companies into the new business park being prepared on the north end of Viroqua.
Julie Emslie, Southwest program manager with Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC), who helps micro-businesses, small businesses and the underserved, shared these figures. About 25% of her clients are doing better or are optimistic they’ll survive this pandemic. She’s more concerned about the rest of her clients, roughly 75% of them, who are in varying states of operation from not being open to significantly struggling.
State Representative Loren Oldenburg reported he has toured the new Nordik Meats, which is in the former Premier Meats building between Viroqua and Westby, and four of their planned eight or nine employees have been hired. The new business is expected to open soon.
Tim Hundt, Congressional Aide with Congressman Ron Kind’s office, shared that Kind’s draft bill to improve broadband connectivity in large rural areas is in Congress. He added that unemployment and other financial assistance to those affected by COVID-19 is scheduled to end this month. He raised the question whether funding can be gotten for organizations like VEDA and WWBIC.
Gregg Wavrunek, Western Wisconsin Regional Representative for Senator Tammy Baldwin, said, “We anticipate hearing news on this financial assistance after Congress comes back from its break.” He added that the current shortages of child care and housing in our area were addressed in the CARES Act, and that Sen. Baldwin proposed additional money in the next package of assistance.
VEDA Board Member Jeff Gohlke suggested VEDA remain flexible and be ready to provide services for whatever comes after COVID-19.
In ending the discussion and meeting, Breckel reminded the group how important agri-business is in our area and the need to reconnect with small farms and take into account caring for our environment. He encouraged attendees to continue sharing new ideas and possibilities for the future.
Kathy Neidert is a member of the Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA) Board of Directors.
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