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THE FUTURE OF FARM C OUNTRY Clark County economic director says change is here to stay

Sheila Nyberg is what you might refer to as an irredeemable optimist.

As executive director of the Clark County Economic Development Corporation and Tourism Bureau, Nyberg is in charge of promoting the heart of America’s Dairyland at a time when dairy farmers are in crisis. She feels the seismic shifts in the ag economy, but she’s determined to not let it shake her.

“It’s so much change, it’s hard to get your arms around it,” she said. “All we can do is embrace every piece we can and hope we’re nurturing it to a good end.”

Everybody is tied together, she said, whether it’s the banks that loan money to farmers or companies that make the machinery.

“When the farmers are hurting,we all hurt,” she said. “Even the grocery stores are saying that.”

Meyer Manufacturing in Dorchester, for example, is building bigger and more expensive equipment for expanding dairy operations, she said, but they don’t make as many units as they used to.

Nyberg said it’s a “monster challenge” to find other lines of work for farmers who sell their cows and essentially become a “dislocated worker.” She said it’s up to agencies like the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development to help retrain these people.

Those who want to stay in the ag industry need to diversify in order to survive, she said, whether that’s with organic produce or greenhouse operations like the many that have sprouted up in Clark County.

The same goes for those who make their living in retail — another sector of the economy undergoing massive turmoil due to the increasing popularity of online shopping.

Nyberg said there are still people who want to do their shopping at traditional brick-and-mortar stores, especially those that offer unique items that can’t be found anywhere else. She says Clark County’s communities are filled with “fantastic businesses” that serve both local customers and ship their products to other markets.

Entrepreneurs continue to step up and establish new businesses in Clark County, she said, pointing to the Knockout health shake stores in Thorp and Abbotsford started by a pair of local ladies.

Nyberg said Clark County also needs to do more to promote the qualify of life offered by its small-town communities, with the goal of bringing in people as either tourists or potential residents.

“We have five seasons because you’ve got to include hunting,” she said, laughing.

If Clark County wants to keep growing and thriving in the 21st century, though, Nyberg said residents need access to high-speed internet, which will take an investment of government and private sector funds.

“Broadband is an absolute must,” she said. “I don’t care if you’re a dairy farmer or the next new business or somebody living in the countryside.” Reliable internet access, even in the most remote areas of Clark County, could allow people to either work from home or enjoy longer visits, Nyberg said.

“If they can connect to the office, they can stay and play another day,” she said. “That’s the motto.”

At the same time, Nyberg said the county can’t forget about more traditional tools of economic development, particularly railroad transportation.

“That’s what built our communities, and, I tell ya, that’s what’s going to help us grow,” she said.

Nyberg is working with the Tri-County Rail Team to make sure businesses in the area are getting the rail service they need, even if Canadian National doesn’t currently seem interested in adding service to the local line between Medford, Abbotsford and Spencer.

The solution may come in the form of a short-line operator, which could accommodate the specialized needs of businesses who need rail service, she said.

“We just have to make sure we’re working really hard to keep our companies happy,” she said.

Telecommunication and transportation aren’t the only two challenges facing the Clark County economy.

Homegrown companies like Abbyland Foods in Abbotsford continue to grow and add employees, but as that happens, housing remains a concern.

Nyberg said every municipality in Clark County has land available for a housing development, whether it’s single- family homes or multiplexes, but the cost of construction often discourages would-be developers.

“It’s a struggle to build brand new,” she said.

Still, it is possible for new housing to be built with public-private partnerships.

The city of Abbotsford and Abbyland Foods worked together to develop the new Schilling Meadows subdivision on the city’s north side, which includes apartments for newly arrived Abbyland employees and land for future singlefamily homes.

With the low unemployment rate of recent years, Nyberg said companies in Clark County usually have between 400 and 700 job positions open at any given time. However, there is not enough homes in those communities, so workers end up living in larger cities like Marshfi eld or Wausau.

“We’d like them to find a home in Clark County if they take a job here,” she said. “When they commute, it’s too easy to lose them if they can’t find housing.”

Looking forward, Nyberg said the CCEDC will continue doing what it can to promote economic development in a county whose identity is rooted in agriculture, food production and specialized manufacturing.

One spot that could represent the future of Clark County commerce is the Central Wisconsin Agribusiness Innovation Center, a swath of empty land just off STH 29 near Owen that is still looking for its first major tenant.

When it was first conceived years ago, the plans included a 50,000 square foot multi-purpose facility for education, training and R& D in agribusiness and bio-energy.

“That is not all a dead issue, not at all,” she said.

Always the optimist, Nyberg said she’s sure Clark County’s economy is going to emerge stronger than before once it works through all the uncertainty of a quickly changing landscape.

“We’ve never ever seen this before, and we have no idea what it’s going to look like when it’s done,” she said.