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EDC transitions to new president

Editor's note: This article was written by 2017-2018 St. Croix Economic Development Corporation President Rob O'Keefe.

I am humbled and honored to serve as the 2017-18 president of the St. Croix Economic Development Corporation. I accepted a request to move my presidency up a year and will advance from my former officer position of second vice president. Although my term as president is slightly unexpected, St. Croix EDC will not skip a beat.

I wish to extend my personal "thank you" to departing President Agnes Ring. She remains on the board as one of three county supervisors appointed by the county administrator and confirmed by the County bBard. Agnes will continue to serve on the executive committee in the capacity of past president.

I also extend my appreciation to two EDC directors who are departing the board, Paul Schwebach of River Falls and Duane Russett of Baldwin. Their contributions proved invaluable and will be greatly missed.

With just about every goodbye, there's a hello. I wish to welcome Angela Popenhagen, P.E. and Matt Sparks as new EDC directors. We welcome their expertise and leadership to the board.

Joining me on the executive committee will be Jill Gorres, first vice president; Brian Elwood, second vice president; David Tyvoll, secretary/treasurer; and Agnes Ring, past president.

The balance of the EDC board can be found at the bottom of this article. They include county supervisors, bankers, a dean at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, attorney, wealth adviser, and UW-Extension educator, etc.

Diverse? You bet. But we have a common mission of expanding economic development opportunities throughout St. Croix County.

About me

I grew up on my grandfather's retired farm between Hammond and Roberts. Mom worked at the school, and Dad worked in St. Paul, so I understand the dichotomy of people employed in St. Croix County and the 43 percent of us who travel to Minnesota for their workday.

After high school at St. Croix Central (Go Panthers!) I attended UW-Eau Claire. I lived in Marshfield, then in 2007 moved back to "home" after starting a job as the IT director at OEM Fabricators in Woodville.

Encouraged by Mark and Jim at OEM to get involved in the community, I was a director on the Baldwin-Woodville Chamber of Commerce, serving a year as president. When the opportunity came up, I was excited to approach economic development on a larger scale as a director on the board of the EDC.

Challenges ahead

Under the leadership of Agnes Ring, the EDC implemented a perceptions survey to determine what residents and businesses thought about the EDC and the business climate in St. Croix County. We'll be using the survey results at each EDC committee to shape goals over the next 12 months.

Here are some obvious challenges:

The workforce: Through retirement, more people are leaving the workforce than new workers are entering it. Drive through a business or industrial park and you'll see the sign "help wanted."

Opening of the St. Croix Crossing: Since its approval in early 2012, the region has had many occasions to contemplate what the opening of a modern, four-lane bridge will bring to St. Croix County and beyond.

Beginning sometime this August, the St. Croix Crossing will open to vehicular, pedestrian and bicycling traffic. We'll take slow and managed growth over something akin to a land rush, but land uses will likely change, population gains will be recorded, and of course, new economic development opportunities will emerge. The best view of a river, lake or valley sometimes happened from a bridge deck. Needless to say, the St. Croix Crossing is a legacy-style bridge befitting the St. Croix Valley. Tourism will surely tick up as travelers come to enjoy the natural beauty of the valley.

Agriculture: Agriculture is a big component of local, regional, state and national economies. Farm practices continue to change and operators often rely on software technology to guide crop management, the application of nutrients and production. Big farms are a reality, but I believe there's room for small ones, too, especially organic farming and farmers markets.

Your St. Croix EDC

St. Croix EDC exists as a membership-supported business league in St. Croix County. Local units of government, like towns, villages and cities help support the EDC's operations in same way private-sector businesses provide operational support through their annual memberships. St. Croix County is our largest member-contributor.

Organized in 1993, the EDC is coming up on its 25th year. Just like in business and government, the EDC has learned to be nimble.

What do you want in your EDC? Give it some thought and let us know.

Meanwhile, with spring in full bloom, we are reminded every day of the nature's beauty in the St. Croix Valley. Enjoy.