Vernon County Economic Development postpones decision on director, moves forward with strategic plan

VIROQUA, Wis. – Over the last five years or so, the Vernon County Economic Development Committee has made an effort to increase the county’s role in economic development with a number of changes. The committee hired a consultant in 2017 to develop a strategic plan for economic development. One of the main elements of that plan was to hire an economic development coordinator. The committee made good on that recommendation and in 2018 hired Christina Dollhausen as the Vernon County Economic Development Coordinator. Dollhausen was hired for $50,000 year, but as an independent contractor, not a full-time county employee.

January Vernon County Economic Development Committee meeting

Since being hired Dollhausen has set out to implement the goals in the first strategic plan and the committee has been debating about making the economic development coordinator position a full-time county position for about a year. You can read our previous story about that discussion here.

In the meantime the Economic Development Committee has hired two outside agencies to develop another five year economic development plan. The committee hired the Mississippi River Regional Planning Commission (MRRPC) and Place Dynamics to develop a new plan. One the recommendations the committee is getting from those agencies and others is to make the economic development coordinator a full-time position.

The committee did approve putting a line item in the 2024 county budget for a full-time position at $80,000, but has held off making a final decision on approving the full-time position pending a wage recommendation from a wage consultant that is working on adjustments to a number of county positions. That delay caused the committee to once again, at their November meeting, extend Dollhausen’s contract until the end of March while they wait for that wage information.

At this months meeting the committee heard reports from both MRRPC and Place Dynamics about the draft strategic plans they have developed. The timeline is to present the final plan to the full county board at the February monthly meeting. In their presentations of the reports and preliminary recommendations, both consultants emphasized the need to support the people and the plans they have in place. Jon Bingol with MRRPC said through his research in developing a plan and spending time working with county, his main recommendation was about leadership.

“I think Place Dynamics does great work hopefully you find our work to be also beneficial,” said Bingol. “But the first strategy recommendation I think that both of us are trying to give is leadership. We need leadership in the county. And you know if Rod (County Supervisor Rod Ofte) was here he would probably say maybe I wrote my part too nice and didn’t tell you what you needed to hear, but I didn’t see any reason to be mean or not helpful. The reality is you guys have done a lot of good things you built off the 17 plan, when you didn’t have Economic Development. I’ve been doing this a long time I could go to any county any community that’s never done it and I can give a top 10 list do these things to start, and you will move forward. Place (Dynamics) did a great job doing that laying it out. The work plan was helpful, but again, it was still up to you guys to do it”

Bingol said the plan the county develops will only work if the leadership supports it and provides the vision to use the information.

“So one of the things I had recommended,” said Bingol. “You’re creating the strategy you’re creating recommendations but this body, with the coordinator, really needs to highlight
the plan. I thought it was great that Andrew (Dane-Place Dynamics) threw out the idea of the visions and the key things but are those really, I’ve been coming here for a little over a year and I don’t know that I would say that that’s exactly what your vision is. And I think as a group probably we need to take a step back look at all the data that’s been collected and then really identify those priorities. And I think that’s awesome if if Place (Dynamics) can give you a suggested work plan, but it’s your plan. So all they can do is make recommendations and you guys really have
to own it. And the difference between the counties and communities that win with economic development, regardless of all the challenges they lead. They grow leaders. That’s part of the key of this plan. With that we have to we have to decide what we’re going to be.”

Both plans gathered lots of information through community input sessions throughout the county but also through statistical data. Both reports contain information on trends and what residents want in their communities. Both plans make recommendations on that information in areas like housing, infrastructure, tourism, schools, day care and quality of life. Both plans highlighted the Vernon County has done better than most surrounding counties in attracting people to come to Vernon County.

“You guys are a little ahead of the curve,” said Bingol. “Because people do want to come here. So you’ve had some in migration, and your growth rate has actually been higher than the states. So those are things to build off of. But we still have to do those things that really enhance the quality of life. I know they’re they’re not pretty. You don’t hear a lot of these from your high dollar consultants, but we need to take care of the roads. We need to take care of the infrastructure. We
need to do those things.”

The committee tasked Dollhausen with combining the recommendations of the two plans and blending them into a 3-5 page report that can be presented to the county board of supervisors at the February meeting.

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