The economic sustainability and future growth of Vilas County’s many communities, 1,300-lake and 1,018 square miles of area and has a new face at the helm: Kathy Schmitz, taking over as Vilas County Economic Development Corporation (VCEDC) executive director.
“We came here every year as a family,” Schmitz said. “I still remember catching my first musky in freezing cold rain on High Lake in Boulder Junction. It was 42 inches! All those spring, summers and fall. I have such fond memories of coming here as a child, teenager and then adult. That is one of the wonderful things that drew me here … this really gave me a chance to live my life full circle.”
Schmitz hails from Shorewood, near Milwaukee. She obtained her degree in journalism and broadcasting from Marquette University and her master’s in business from Cardinal Stritch University. Her career has taken her from reporting in radio and television to health care, where she worked as an executive director in the medical community for more than two decades.
“One of the treasures of coming back, is some of the same businesses are still here. This is still such a vibrant community,” Schmitz said. “That’s so good to see.”
That sustainability is part of what Schmitz looks forward to working with in her new role as VCEDC executive director. She takes over for long time executive director, Bob Egan, who is assisting in her transition to the role.
VCEDC works to create successful public-private partnerships to stimulate sustainable economic growth throughout the county. This includes working with existing businesses or those interested in becoming entrepreneurs. VCEDC provides leadership and regional infrastructure to improve business economic well-being as that of communities and residents in addition to promoting creation and retention of viable businesses and quality jobs. They also offer opportunities for education strengthening workforce development.
Incorporating her passion for the many tiny communities throughout Vilas County — Boulder Junction, Winchester, Presque Isle, Arbor Vitae, Sayner, Plum Lake, Land O’ Lakes, Lac du Flambeau, St. Germain, Conover, Manitowish Waters, Phelps and the City of Eagle River — Schmitz said she looks forward to employing her now highly-developed professional skills to the task of keeping the county growing and diverse in economic growth and continuity.
“I want to show others, and get that message out, that you can live here, and work here, too,” Schmitz said. “Keep the work you enjoy. You can do that here now, too. You really can have it all.”
‘I want to make Vilas County the best county in the state’
Some communities have already set up or have high speed internet or broadband, while a number of others are working towards securing matching grant dollars to bring it to their area. This is one strong suit for Vilas County, Schmitz indicated, that allows people to work remotely in the area or enhance or start their own business.
Part of what VCEDC does is to work with budding entrepreneurs on their plans and marketing goals to ensure they are viable and likely to succeed, thus avoiding and unnecessary crashes or pitfalls that could be a determent to the person trying to get a start.
Egan and VCEDC board president Jim Tuckwell spent time taking Schmitz to area communities and introducing her to business leaders, the board and organizations during her first days in the new job.
“There are some real hidden treasures here,” Schmitz said. “The partnerships that are established with the entrepreneurs and the amount of people that are seeking advice (from VCEDC) are wonderful. It really is phenomenal what is going on here.
“People just want that start. They want places to do their work here in Vilas County,” she continued. “Working on business plans and that whole process is something I look forward to. There are places you can find a plan and get a start up here. There’s such support. That’s not something you find in a big city.”
“You don’t have to wait until you retire to live here,” Tuckwell agreed.
Schmitz said a challenge in her new position will be effectively reaching target audiences and relaying the message of Vilas County’s vast economic development and existing opportunities.
“I’m confident we can do it,” she said. “I want to make Vilas County the best county in the state.”
The new executive director looks forward to drawing on her background of reporting others’ stories and consistently sharing those of Vilas County with the Northwoods, state, nation and even globally, new executive director indicated.
“That’s what I love about this, I can take something and see if we can expand it, grow it. I can tell stories, ‘How can I make you look good?’” Schmitz said. “I love that. It’s who I am. This is an amazing story here.”
Tuckwell said he and the board are excited to have Schmitz on board, and also grateful to Egan for all his years with VCEDC and his plan to continue to serve as a board member and work on county fairground matters and the Brownfield project (clean up and redevelopment efforts alongside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) near Phelps.
Tuckwell added Schmitz on board will enhance and continue the vision of VCEDC, which has been in existence for just over a decade now. Their goals of becoming established, creating an identity and getting visible and active in the community as well as significantly helping businesses and aiding in securing new ones plus creating jobs has already been well underway, he indicated.
“Now, we are exploring taking VCEDC to the next level, and continuing to improve the quality of life for everyone in Vilas County,” Tuckwell said. “We were looking for someone with that set of skills to carry out these goals to do that outreach. Kathy really was the number one applicant. We wanted a rock star — we got one. She has met and exceeded all our expectations.”
Schmitz background in fundraising and education and communication will be a true asset to VCEDC, Egan added.
“We are ready to move to the next level,” Egan said. “I really love this organization, and I’m happy to introduce Kathy and help her make those connections as she’s starting out.”
Vilas County is a diverse county, with a large set of people who are interested in the economic future the county and themselves, Schmitz said.
“There are a lot of different areas for opportunity,” she observed. “This is an exciting time. I’m grateful to have this platform and to be a part of it … if I can help one business, one person, that person goes on to help others which in turn helps the entire community. It’s tremendous ripple effect. Helping one adds to the whole vibrancy of the community.”
“Kathy has an exceptional background in marketing, communications and strategic planning and she will be a real driver in our effort,” Tuckwell noted.
Schmitz has moved to Vilas County. Shortly joining her from their former southern Wisconsin home will be her husband and two dogs and horse. In her recreation time, Schmitz enjoys hiking, horseback riding, cross country skiing and looks forward to learning the snowmobile culture in the Northwoods.
“Everybody is so welcoming here,” Schmitz said. “Every day is different, I never know who will call or who I will meet. It’s always something new.”
Schmitz and her husband also operate a non-profit organization, Okoa-Toto, which means “save the child” in Kenya. The home will house several children where they will receive education.
Egan and Schmitz were both recognized at the VCEDC annual meeting on Friday, Dec. 6.
Egan will officially retire Dec. 31 and join the board Jan. 1.
For more information about VCEDC or to reach Schmitz, visit vilascountyedc.org or call 715-337-0061.