ASHLAND – The image of Wisconsin’s Lake Superior region is that of a laid-back vacation getaway, a place where a woman’s motorcycle club from Manitowoc can share a lakeside bar with preppie sail boaters from Chicago and a smattering of locals. And everyone gets along.
Tourism has long been a pillar of the economy in the Lake Superior region, along with three other traditional “Ts” – timber, transportation and taconite, an iron-bearing rock that is still shipped by the ton from the ports in Duluth and Superior.
Of late, however, a fifth “T” has crept into the local development vocabulary – technology.
Persistent efforts by private industry in the region, backed by economic development professionals, higher education and several statewide groups, have accelerated the diversification of the North Woods economy. Some of those efforts were on display at this month’s meeting of the Wisconsin Technology Council in Ashland; others will be highlighted at the Lake Superior Technology Conference, Aug. 5-6 in Ashland. Most important, they’re all emblematic of long-term commitment.
A group of Lake Superior region businesses told Tech Council board members how they have come together to forge a Chequamegon Bay area manufacturing alliance that could mean more jobs for area residents and better value for their customers.
The North Star Manufacturing Alliance involves four businesses, including Ashland Industries Inc. in Ashland, Washburn Iron Works in Washburn, Eagle Forge in Ashland, and World Class Precision Products in Bayfield. Products and services produced by the four include metal fabrication, steel and aluminum forging, precision machining, mold, die and pattern making, production welding, paint and powder coating, prototype development, layout and design, and assembly, packaging and shipping.
Bob Peltonen of World Class Precision Products said the alliance combines the manufacturing strengths of all four companies to provide more value to clients by being able to offer them a single point of service for related manufacturing tasks and products.
“Our main objective is that united we can manufacture any project, no matter how large they are,” Peltonen said. “Together, we work as one unit, from raw materials to a finished product, with one purchase order.”
For example, the alliance enables materials to move from one facility to another with no cost to the customer. It’s all done with the latest – and most environmentally friendly – technologies. In fact, the alliance hopes to achieve a state “Green Tier” rating for its sustainable practices.
Other examples of economic growth leveraged by technology include businesses in health care, heavy equipment, synthetic lubricants, transportation logistics and biofuels. In fact, the region has an emerging “fuels cluster,” according to Andy Lisak of The Development Association, which is centered in Superior. That cluster includes Wisconsin’s only oil refinery and a low-sulfur coal terminal, in addition to fuels being derived from plant and wood waste sources.
Investors in the region have come together through the Lake Superior Angel Network, the newest angel group to join the Wisconsin Angel Network. Those investors recently reviewed three homegrown deals involving tech-based companies.
An enduring focal point has been the Lake Superior Technology Conference, which is organized by members of the Wisconsin Innovation Network’s Lake Superior chapter and produced with the help of the Tech Council. The conference has highlighted regional assets and added momentum to local development efforts since 2006. The Aug. 5-6 conference will be held at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in Ashland; to learn more, visit www.wisconsintechnologycouncil/events
The Lake Superior economy may always rest on wise use of the region’s natural resources, but technology is increasingly providing added value for customers and jobs for those who produce the goods and services. The region may never be technology hub, but those who care about its future are also determined not to be a forgotten side road.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.