Economic developers in Wisconsin's Kenosha County like to boast about their region's proximity to Chicago and O'Hare airport, its major interstate expressway, and the state's business-friendly climate.
"A lot of the competition we face is from Illinois and the Chicago area," Kenosha Area Business Alliance President Todd Battle said. "And it's no secret Illinois has had their struggles."
Northwest Indiana officials make parallel boasts when pitching its region's blessings to businesses in other states. The region has three major interstate expressways. It's just 35 minutes to Chicago's Loop and 45 minutes to O'Hare. And Indiana says it has the most business-friendly tax environment of any Midwest state.
But when it comes to economic development since the recession, there is no comparison between Kenosha County and Northwest Indiana.
In the past 12 months alone, the top five economic development deals announced in Kenosha County resulted in promises of 3,496 new jobs for the region. That compares to a sum total of 989 jobs promised by the top five deals in Northwest Indiana's three counties of Lake, Porter and LaPorte.
And after the top five, Kenosha County can brag of numerous others bringing in hundreds more jobs, whereas the Northwest Indiana list quickly dwindles to just a handful of minor jobs announcements.
The stark difference in economic development between the two regions was highlighted in an Aug. 6 address to the Northwest Indiana Forum by NAI Hiffman Senior Vice President Kelly Disser, a nationally recognized site selector.
Kenosha County's local communities have the ability to respond quickly to developers' needs, which is a key to their success, Disser told an audience of about 150 business and community leaders.
By contrast, there are challenges in getting Northwest Indiana communities to respond quickly to developers needs in terms of zoning, taxing districts and infrastructure, Disser said.
Another important asset for Kenosha County is the large tracts of open farmland that line Interstate 94 right at the border. Northwest Indiana lacks those open tracts of land, called greenfields by developers, at the points where Interstate 80/94 and the Indiana Toll Road cross the border.
The building of the Illiana Expressway, which would terminate at I-65, about 15 miles south of I-80/94, would do much to remedy that situation, Disser said. A change in attitude might help as well.
"All of that can be overcome if Northwest Indiana can earn a reputation for responsiveness," Disser said.
City of Kenosha: a 'slam dunk'
The advantage Kenosha County has when it comes to responsiveness is best illustrated by a massive high-bay packaging plant and adjacent shipping center being built for Amazon.com Inc. at the far west edge of the city of Kenosha. It will soon employ 1,600.
Kenosha Mayor Keith Bosman first heard about the project over lunch with developers when snow was still on the ground in early 2013.
In the next nine months, the city government completed an annexation of the land, extended utilities, created a tax increment finance district and approved a $25 million grant to be paid back by Amazon over seven years. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. kicked in $7 million in tax credits.
"For us, it was a slam dunk," Bosman said. "It was actually very easy."
He recently gave a development tour of the city of 99,889 residents to a Times reporter.
Bosman noted the new development doesn't make Kenosha County recession-proof. The county's unemployment rate soared to 13 percent on the heels of the 2007-09 recession, driven in part by the 2010 shutdown of the Chrysler Engine plant just west of downtown. As many as 1,300 worked there before the shutdown.
It was just one of a series of "kicks in the gut" the community sustained through the decades, as longtime employers in traditional industries left the city or folded up altogether, Bosman said. It was those blows that forced everyone to rethink the region's approach to economic development.
With the nationwide economic recovery and the region's more aggressive stance on economic development, the monthly unemployment rate in Kenosha County this year has fallen as low as 6.1 percent and appears poised to fall further.
Bosman traversed east-west routes in a Chrysler Town & Country mini-van pointing out where Kennall Manufacturing, currently Illinois-based, is constructing a new $30 million headquarters and manufacturing plant to employ 600. Next door, food disposal manufacturer InSinkErator is undertaking a $7 million renovation for a new production facility to employ 200.
And just across I-94 from the Amazon construction site, packing products distributor ULINE has announced it will build a 1 million-square-foot distribution center to employ 475.
But even with all that new development on the west side of Kenosha, the epicenter of industrial development in Kenosha County remains the LakeView Corporate Park that was the inspiration for the incorporation of the village of Pleasant Prairie 25 years ago.
That industrial park covers 1,542 acres and is home to manufacturing plants and distribution centers for 79 companies in total, according to its developers. Altogether, 8,336 people work there.
Founded in 1989 by Wisconsin Energy, the LakeView Corporate Park provides Pleasant Prairie, a village of just 20,173 people, with a proven track record when it comes to economic development, according to village Adminstrator Michael Pollocoff.
Just since the beginning of 2013, the park has pulled four companies over the state line which will employ a total of 450 more people there. More than half a dozen other companies either setting up shop or expanding at the park will add 600 more jobs.
Success with ULINE
But no economic success story may better illustrate what can happen when a company takes a shine to your community than the story of ULINE, Pollocoff said.
ULINE hopped the state line from Waukegan, Ill., to Wisconsin in 2010 and has never looked back.
The family owned company opened a palatial, 200,000-square-foot corporate headquarters and 1.1 million distribution center on farmland just west of I-94 in the village of Pleasant Prairie that year where 900 people work.
This year, ULINE has announced an expansion at that campus that will add 500 jobs. When combined with the 475 jobs destined for the city of Kenosha, its total payroll in the southeast Wisconsin county will swell to around 2,000.
All the experience gained at the nearby LakeView Corporate Park allowed village, regional and state officials to get the job done when ULINE came knocking five years ago, Pollocoff said.
"When someone is interested in coming to Wisconsin, we've already done the legwork," Pollocoff said. "We find when a company wants to come they want to move pretty fast. They don't want to wait for another sewer study or a transportation study."