PRESCOTT – The winding roads and hilly terrain outside this small community on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River suggest agriculture or tourism, not high technology. But if a visitor follows directions carefully, what appears to be a wrong turn reveals a surprising destination.
In a secure facility overlooking the river, and with eagles soaring eye-level over the bluffs, sits the Phillips Plastics Corp. Technology Center. This is where a homegrown Wisconsin company with roughly 1,600 employees spread over 14 in-state locations leverages its expertise in bioengineering, materials, mechanics, automation, electronics, plastics processing and metallurgy to create better products and processes.
The center and its 50-plus employees is a symbol of a changing, and vibrant, economy in western Wisconsin, where the economic clout of the nearby Twin Cities has spilled over the border to combine with Badger state innovation. The result has been one of the fastest-growing economies in the state.
The Phillips plant in Prescott is located in Pierce County, also home to UW-River Falls and its business school. Just north is St. Croix County and communities such as Hudson and New Richmond, where growth has been dramatic over the past 10 years. Just east is Dunn County and the city of Menomonie, where UW-Stout is establishing a reputation for being a tech-driven campus. All in all, it’s a region on the move – as the statistics for one county alone (St. Croix) demonstrate.
Between 2000 and 2004, the population of St. Croix County grew by 17.7 percent to 74,339 – and it is expected to soar over 80,000 by 2010. Per capita income grew by 18 percent between 1997 and 2002 and has continued to surge beyond the statewide average.
By most measures, it is the fastest-growing county in Wisconsin – a fact that is both a matter of pride and of consternation as the community grapples with the inevitable growing pains.
To be sure, the economic dynamism of the Twin Cities is the major factor. But the region is also looking to the future on its own, as evidenced by the Phillips Technology Center in Prescott. It is something of a research and development hub for Phillips, which was founded in 1964 in a remodeled cheese factory and since grown to $240 million in annual sales. The company’s products fill a wide range, but most fall into the consumer, medical and automotive markets.
The company spends $1.5 million per year to keep its employees on top of the latest technology; its Origen Center in Menomonie serves as both a training center and a business incubator. One of the 2006 “Business of the Year” award winners in St. Croix County is a Phillips spinout, for example. According to the company’s 2006 annual report, it spends $10 million per year on new manufacturing equipment, processes and technologies – a portion of which is evident at the Prescott facility.
“This is where we prefer to skin our knees,” said Bill Hickey, director of new business initiatives for Phillips. “Products and processes are tested here before they are moved to the production floor.”
Phillips is far from the only innovative company in the region, of course, but with facilities in Hudson, New Richmond, Menomonie, Eau Claire and Prescott, it is among the reasons the region is growing.
A regional approach to economic development, cooperation between education and industry, and a commitment to innovation are reasons why this region is prospering. It is an example from which other communities may learn.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.