Business leaders talk local economy, transportation with Duffy

Body: 

Business leaders told a Wisconsin congressman that workers in the Hudson area need better access to transportation.

U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy toured portions of St. Croix County on Monday, Aug. 8, including a stop at Cardinal Health in Hudson, where he met with members of the area business community. With one notable exception, attendees told Duffy and state Rep. Shannon Zimmerman that access to public transportation is a hurdle for some in the robust local job market.

Kathy Ableidinger, operations director at Cardinal Health's Hudson distribution center, said the lack of local transportation in and around Hudson is a challenge for workers in need of reliable transportation to work. She said the company's professional employees mainly commute from the Twin Cities, while its hourly workers generally come from communities in St. Croix and Pierce counties.

St. Croix Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Bill Rubin said the absence of a local transit system is a "barrier."

"We're a group of road warriors in St. Croix County," he said.

Blake Fry, executive director of the Hudson Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau, said Hudson's housing stock can be expensive, noting that much of the new residential construction is in the $400,000 range. He said that's not an option for some workers in the area.

"You can't afford to live in Hudson and have one of those jobs," Fry said.

He also cited a need for more transportation options, though Hudson Mayor Rich O'Connor said community members have not expressed a similar need to him.

"I'm not hearing that in Hudson at all — at all," O'Connor told Duffy.

Fry said he hears transportation concerns from chamber members.

In spite of transportation issues, most attendees at the meeting reported positive business development.

Rubin noted that the county has a 73 percent workforce participation rate and that Hudson's rate is closer to 80 percent. He also noted a recent report that ranked Houlton as Wisconsin's seventh most affluent community.

Still, struggles were also voiced.

Pat Nistler, owner of RiverWalk Square in River Falls, told Duffy that as a small business owner "in the trenches" she'd love to pay her workers $15 an hour, but that revenue needs to support that. She said she has aimed her marketing effort at Twin Cities residents planning day trips to western Wisconsin, "who might find us an interesting and charming getaway."

Duffy, a Hayward Republican, agreed with Nistler that rules and regulations can hamper small businesses and called on attendees to let him know which regulations are the most onerous. The congressman mostly listened during the hourlong meeting before updating attendees on the prospects of federal tax reform in Congress.

Duffy later turned the discussion toward entrepreneurial opportunities — a topic that he and Zimmerman explored later in the day during a tour of the St. Croix Valley Business Innovation Center, under construction in River Falls.

Rubin said "the spirit is here" for entrepreneurship, along with the resources. Zimmerman and River Falls Leitch Insurance Agency owner Steve Leitch said local support — especially involving UW-River Falls and Chippewa Valley Technical College — must foster that effort.

"We have to promote that identity," Zimmerman, a River Falls Republican, said.