By Tom Still

ASHLAND — Like most communities in rural Wisconsin, the Chequamegon Bay region in the northwest corner of the state wonders what the future holds in store for its economy. It has some attractive assets – a well-educated workforce, strong high-speed telecommunications capacity, and a quality life style – but it wants to keep more of its young people home by creating more high-paying jobs.

That search for a “knowledge-based” economy is well under way in northwest Wisconsin and Ashland, where the second Lake Superior Region Technology Conference will be held Aug. 8-9 at the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College campus.

Ashland sits at the foot of Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay, a picturesque area within easy reach of Superior-Duluth, Minn., Bayfield, Hayward and Hurley-Ironwood, Mich. A somewhat longer drive connects the region to the Twin Cities, Eau Claire-Chippewa, Marshfield and Wausau. While predominantly rural in character, however, Ashland isn’t isolated. Its economy has been historically based on logging and paper products, but it’s also home to call centers, health care institutions, tourism, agriculture, a private college and light manufacturing.

Three years ago, leaders in the Chequamegon Bay chapter of the UW Alumni Association invited the Wisconsin Technology Council to hold its board of directors meeting in Ashland. That led to the creation of a chapter of the Wisconsin Innovation Network, the Tech Council’s membership subsidiary, and the beginnings of a networking and fact-finding process.

The latest step is the Lake Superior Region Technology Conference, where participants will first hear from UW System President Kevin Reilly and then attend workshops designed to build on existing economic sectors. Those workshops are:

  • Competing in the “knowledge-based economy:” Communities with an educated workforce have an edge in the 21st century global economy, which is driven by ideas, intellectual property and innovation.  Conference participants will learn how the education continuum in rural Wisconsin (K-12, tech and four-year colleges) is developing a skilled workforce for today’s companies.
  • Trends in alternative energy:  From biofuels to solar energy to wind power, Wisconsin in developing a portfolio of alternative and renewable energy sources.  What are the opportunities for company formation and investment in rural Wisconsin?  Conference attendees will hear about global, national and state trends that can influence the answers.
  • Medical and pharmaceutical business opportunities: While some business start-ups in med-tech are best-suited for cities with major research universities, companies can be created in small to mid-sized communities. What are the best bets within the fast-growing health-care sector for rural Wisconsin?
  • Investing in Wisconsin/basics for entrepreneurs: Conference participants will learn about traditional financing, private equity, as well as bootstrapping techniques and other options.  How long do financing deals take?  What attracts investors?  And what mistakes should entrepreneurs avoid?

For the Chequamegon region and elsewhere in rural Wisconsin, the biofuels revolution offers promise. Corn-based ethanol is already transforming the economies in some communities – but the long-term potential rests with cellulosic ethanol.

This includes prairie grasses, woody plants, wood waste and crop waste such as cornstalks and straw. About 1.4 billion tons of such biomass could be harvested each year at a fraction of the cost of producing corn and without the risk of squeezing food supplies.

Wisconsin can be a leader in cellulosic ethanol because its forest cover (16 million acres out of 34.7 million total), its existing paper and pulp industries, and its experience in managing these resources over time. By removing the excess cellulosic material in our forests and converting it to energy, for example, Wisconsin could actually improve the health of its forests.
But cellulose is far from profitable yet. Capital investment is three times that of a corn ethanol plant, and enzymes are 10 times the cost of those used in corn ethanol process.

The UW-Madison, the UW-System and Michigan State University recently received a five-year, $125-million grant to find new and better ways to produce cellulosic ethanol. This grant from the U.S. Department of Energy is one of only three in the United States. Look for Wisconsin researchers to reach out to rural Wisconsin as they search for production answers.

Tech-based economies aren’t just for big cities. With the right mix of resources, both natural and man-made, smaller communities can find their place in the market. In northwest Wisconsin, the process of determining “what’s next?” is moving ahead.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.