Door County’s Business Balance

For years business and civic leaders in Door County have lamented the lack of quality year ’round jobs in the community. When the topic comes up, inevitably the conversation turns to wishful thinking about attracting a large manufacturer to employ scores, if not hundreds, of employees.

Our peninsula is now home to only a handful of businesses that fit that bill – Bay Ship when times are good, WireTech, Hatco, NEW Industries, Marine Travelift/ExacTech, and Therma-Tron-X. Those are the only manufacturers employing over 100 people in Door County. Our largest employer at the moment is Ministry Door County Medical Center, and three of the top seven employers are in the public sector (the County of Door, Sturgeon Bay Schools, and Southern Door Schools). This week I spoke to Door County Economic Development Corporation Economic Development Manager Sam Perlman about Door County’s lack of large employers.

“It’s not necessarily desirable to have a health care facility as one of your largest employers,” he said, “but our economy is actually far more balanced than people think it is. Not a lot of small towns are like that. You see it all the time where you have a town of 1,000 people and 700 of them are employed at the same plant. When that plant closes down the whole town falls apart.”

Perlman pointed to cities like Janesville, crushed by the closing of a GM production plant two years ago, or Niagara, which was crippled when the NewPage paper plant shut down in August of 2008, leaving 300 people out of work in a town of 1,700.

When one of Door County’s largest employers, Peterson Builders shipyard, shut down in the early 1990s, there were questions about Sturgeon Bay’s future. Some feared a huge population loss. But as Perlman noted, Sturgeon Bay’s population grew slightly over the next decade, proving to be a far more resilient economy than most thought.

“We’re fortunate that we’re not a one-company town here,” Perlman said. “We have a tradition of entrepreneurship that goes back to the shipyard founders and continued with men like Al Johnson throwing some goats up on the roof and creating traffic jams in Sister Bay.”

Not having one large employer as the lifeblood of the peninsula has created a community of creative entrepreneurs. It’s not an easy way to get by and leaves many of us living on edge, but it also prevents us from being stymied by economic disruptions that have throttled other communities.

No grand conclusion here, just an encouraging thought. That entrepreneurial spirit is as important as ever as we continue to wade our way through a mess for which our reps in Washington and Madison have few solutions, and in an era when they have little inclination to do much more than play politics.