"Afterward, I sat in my car and promised myself that I would do something to help them."
Photos by Megan Monday
Sue | Viroqua, WI
"My passion for community development started with organizing PTOs when my kids were in school. After PTO there were sports boosters, so that was the very beginning of it. I always just enjoyed getting volunteers organized towards some sort of project or vision, and I really believe in building communities from within. Usually people have everything they need in their region if they just look. I always say your best resource is your local people.
If you can help your local people, empower them with the skills they need for whatever vision it is that they have, that's how you grow communities. If you grow them from within, you have people who will stay in the community and give back. They are the ones that join the fire department or volunteer in the schools, because they own the community. I really believe that's how communities should grow and prosper. That's been the focus of my work."
"This building used to be a manufacturing plant for a company called National Cash Register. In 2009, they decided they were closing the plant and moving 81 jobs to Tennessee. That was 81 people out of a job; a lot of jobs for a town our size. There were now all these out-of-work employees who were husband and wife teams, people that had worked there since high school. First and only job they ever had. They worked here for 30+ years, and boom, all of a sudden they're out of a job. It was a printing facility, and printing was all they knew how to do.
A group of employees came to me a week after it closed. They wanted a buyout from NCR, and they wanted me to negotiate that. I talked with the CEOs, with the head of global real estate, with the head of the consumables department, the head of governmental affairs…it became clear that they didn't want anything to do with that. They were out of our town. They were done with us. On a Saturday afternoon I had to sit down and tell these employees that the buyout wasn’t going to happen. Afterward, I sat in my car and promised myself that I would do something to help them. These people had no other jobs to go to; it was very devastating to this community. So my plan became to replace every one of those 81 jobs that we lost."
"The conversation could have forever been: 'Isn't it awful what happened in Viroqua when NCR left? This building sitting empty, and 15 acres empty in the industrial park?' Or, the conversation could be: 'Wow, look what's going on in Viroqua!' So we decided to turn that challenge into an opportunity.
I knew from my previous work in the community that there was a large number of people who wanted to start their own businesses, but they didn't have the resources to build their own space. First of all there are not a lot of empty buildings in the region, and there certainly was no place that provides resources, infrastructure, or the sheer size and capacity that allows businesses to grow.
We acquired the old NCR building in 2009. I wrote a lot of grants, and we also have a number of investors who have helped us along the way. Investors that have ‘patient capital’—the concept of ‘slow money.’ They really want to be a part of growing the economy, and they believe in what we're doing. They believe in supporting entrepreneurs, they believe in local food, they believe in the assets that we have in the region. There are actually a lot of resources out there if you just establish the networks and partnerships to make things happen. One of my friends said to me once, 'You're the networking queen.' Because that's what I do, connect the dots, connect people, connect resources. It's all about the relationships, really, at the end of the day. So that was the vision. Helping entrepreneurs realize their dreams, and have the resources to be able to do that in a collective way. And I love the synergy that we have with like-minded people being together, focused on business. That energy, working together, just makes a lot of sense to me."
"When we finished the building renovation from the federal grant, we wanted to do some sort of grand opening kind of thing. I wanted the event to honor the 81 people who lost their jobs, so I invited them to be a part of the ceremony at the flag raising. I was standing with the Deputy Secretary of Commerce who came in for the event, and one of the previous NCR employees came up, shook my hand, shook the Deputy Secretary's hand, and said, 'I just want you to know that what's going on here is fantastic. I used to work here, and it is so rewarding to see this place turned into something alive again.' I was like, 'Whoa.' That was such a nice confirmation.
Because we are a very agricultural region, the grant I wrote focused on food and wellness industries. This region has over 220 organic farms, over 30 CSAs. We have the national headquarters for Organic Valley. We do food here. Plus I really wanted to get back to working with rural people. I was like, 'I have to get back in the farming country.' I grew up milking cows with my dad and driving tractors. I think the country is really the best place to be. And my feeling is that if we can grow the economy through agriculture, it just doesn't get any better than that. So it's very rewarding to watch our loading dock in the summer when we're moving produce all season. I've got three bays, and it's produce in, produce out, all day long. We have produce going to food pantries through Community Hunger Solutions and produce going to Whole Foods Market, and Metcalfe's Market, or Outpost Natural Foods Co-op in Milwaukee. This food is going to people's plates. It's very satisfying to watch that unfold.
We have some really cool tenants here. I like to say that we have the international headquarters for LuSa Organics, because they're shipping all over the world. We have the international headquarters for Kickapoo Coffee because they source their beans from all over the world. We have the national headquarters for Wisco Pop because they're in multiple states. We have a number of success stories already going.
"I love entrepreneurs because they think different. I've always been one of those 'think different' people, and never found a place where I really fit before. Now I've found a place here where I fit, because it's full of entrepreneurs, and full of young people. They have ideas, and they have goals that they want to work on every day. They're serious about it, and they're passionate about it. That's not to say they don't have fun, but they're serious about pursuing their goals. And if I can bring something to that, to help them on their journey, then that makes for a very rewarding day."
-Sue | 5th Generation | Vernon Economic Development Association | Viroqua, WI