WisBusiness: Viroqua’s Food Enterprise Center touted as model “public-private” project

By Gregg Hoffmann
For WisBusiness.com

VIROQUA – The Food Enterprise Center was touted Wednesday as a model of “public and private sector” cooperation by an official of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“This is a cutting edge project,” said Matt Erskine, the acting assistant secretary for economic development for the U.S. Economic Development Administration, at the first Local Food Day celebration for the FEC. “It is a entrepreneur, work focused center. It’s in a former manufacturing building in a community that is re-inventing itself.”

The FEC is in a 100,000 square foot former NCR building. It is serving as an incubator for businesses that are involved in local food production, processing and marketing. Some of the companies already are shipping their products around the nation and world.

A $2 million grant from the Economic Development Administration of the Department of Commerce was a key to its development, which started in 2009 with the purchase of the building from NCR by the Vernon Economic Development Association.

Erskine said the money came from funds set aside by Congress in 2008 for communities trying to rebuild after disasters. The Vernon County area suffered through two floods in three years. The closing of NCR, which cost 81 jobs, also was an economic obstacle for the area.

“The EDA has been in this business for 47 years,” Erskine said in an interview. “We work closely with local partners. The application process is very competitive, and merit-based. We take a long term focus, with the goal of private sector development.

“Communities across the country are trying to reinvent themselves in this new economic reality. This center is an example of that, working with entrepreneurs and building on the local strengths.”

Different paths to economic development have been strongly debated during the presidential campaigns. Erskine said the Obama administration has emphasized public-private partnerships like the FEC, but that “economic development is not a partisan issue.” Those partnering in the FEC come from varied political affiliations.

In addition to EDA, funds for the FEC came through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. on the state level, six regional banks and other public and private sources. Gail MacAskill, sector manager of the WEDC, was one of several dignitaries who attended the Local Food Day event.

Tenants so far include: Keewaydin Organics (Just Local Foods), which processes, stores and distributes organic food products from about 70 producers; Lu Sa Organics, which makes soap products and lotions, which are made from food ingredients and distributed regionally and globally; Fifth Season Cooperative, a multi-stakeholder cooperative made up of producers, producer groups, food processors, distributors, and buyers from the 7 Rivers Region; and Ridge Top Foods, which works with local producers in taking their recipes, making them into products and marketing them. Several additional tenants will be announced in the future.

The event on Wednesday started with the raising of a flag outside the FEC to honor the 81 workers who lost their jobs when NCR folded the plant. “You are part of this,” said Sue Noble, executive director of VEDA. “All of you who are here have supported this effort in some way. You all are part of this.”

Local food vendors and producers displayed their products. Tours of the FEC were conducted, and entertainment provided.

“There is still a lot of work to be done,” Noble said. “But, today is a day for celebration.”

Read an earlier GreenBiz column on the Food Enterprise Center