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State officials gather insight on Superior's economy

State officials got a feel for the local economy during tours of local businesses in Superior.

Secretary Jay Risch of the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions made the trek north this week to meet with business owners to discuss ways local financial institutions support their business growth and success.

During the trip, Risch and other state officials made stops at JR Jensen Construction, Fen-Tech, Earth Rider Brewery, Epicurean and Rich Cuisine on Tuesday, and the Wednesday Bakery and Pastie Shop. He even made a stop at Empire Coffee for a warm beverage before heading back to Madison on Wednesday.

Joining the tours were Marie Steenlage, regional economic development director for Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, Maryann Lippert, the governor's northern representative; and Greg Reiman, assistant deputy secretary of the Department of Financial institutions.

Steve Burgess, president of National Bank of Commerce, guided the group around and made introductions.

"Often times we're visiting with a bank — staff or president in their boardroom — but since commercial lending is such big part of what banks do, we wanted to get out and see some of the businesses that the banks finance," Risch said. "So it's been a lot of fun to visit with these businesses, hearing all the good things that they're doing."

In addition to learning more about the city's businesses, Risch said they are also promoting the state's business climate.

"We're promoting just what a good place Wisconsin is to do business and just how strong our economy is right now; we're seeing that here," Risch said. "Earth Rider Brewery was saying the business climate and the laws related to breweries made Wisconsin the more advantageous place to go."

Earth Rider got a different helping hand when the company converted the former Leamon Mercantile distribution warehouse into a canning brewery last year. A $109,877 state grant through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation last year helped with the renovation of the building.

"Basically, what we were looking at were companies that made substantial changes, especially companies that have chosen Wisconsin to domicile and the reasons that they chose ... Wisconsin," Burgess said.

People may not know places like JR Jensen, a long-time Superior construction firm, recently went through a substantial expansion and works on projects for Enbridge, Husky and throughout the Midwest, Burgess said.

During the stop at vinyl window manufacturer Fen-Tech, officials learned a common theme among employers now is finding employees to fill available jobs.

"The president of Fen-Tech said that they've got five new business opportunities that he's got to decide if they have the capacity to take on," Reisman said. "And he thinks that he can with some additional employees."

Burgess said said employers are finding niches to get well qualified employees.

With the state's economy being in good shape, Risch said one of the things he did expect, and a theme that developed among the businesses he visited, is the need for workers.

The state's unemployment rate has been below 3 percent for eight straight months.

"It's a good struggle to have is just finding employees," Risch said. "They're growing. They have more opportunity than they have employees right now."

Risch said he learned good things are happening in Superior's economy.

"There was just a general optimism everywhere we went," Risch said. "People were pleased with the trajectory of the state, pleased with the trajectory of Superior. So we're coming away with a real positive report for the governor."

Burgess said it's good for Superior when state officials get a chance to get familiar with the community.

"I think it's good because a lot of the time the state — they've been very helpful in supporting businesses up here in Douglas County and Superior —but so many times they kind of stop at Highway 29," Burgess said.

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