• WisBusiness

Hicks-Sorensen: Relief for Fond du Lac after 'roller coaster' of Merc Marine saga
9/24/2009

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Fond du Lac’s recent, unsettling experience with Mercury Marine -- one day the company was headed to Oklahoma and soon after officials said it would remain -- was an emotional “roller coaster” for most of those involved.

At least that’s the description from Brenda Hicks-Sorensen, president of the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp.

“I experienced some of the most incredible highs I’ve ever felt and probably some of the most incredible lows,” she said. “And some of those came within five minutes.”

She said things changed so rapidly during the back-and-forth negotiations and on-and-off contract votes in late August and early September that she had a hard time keeping up.

Ultimately, Mercury Marine decided to stay put, but not before it had wrung concessions out of its labor union, as well as public backing by Fond du Lac County and the city of Fond du Lac.

That support includes a $50 million low-interest loan from the county that would be paid for with a first-ever, half-cent county sales tax that will start on April 1 of 2010. Mercury Marine would have to meet certain job creation goals, however, Hicks-Sorensen said.

In addition, the city will provide $3 million to purchase land owned by Mercury Marine or provide loans and grants to the company.

“We were thrilled with the ultimate outcome, but it still seems kind of surreal because it was so pervasive and on everyone’s thoughts and minds for such a long time,” she said.

She noted that that the community could gain upwards of 1,000 new jobs over seven years at Mercury Marine as part of the agreements. The company now employs 850 union factory workers in Fond du Lac.

“They are talking about some significant employment numbers,” she said.

Labor leaders have complained about the concessions they had to make. Community leaders in Stillwater, Oklahoma were especially bitter and said they felt used by Mercury Marine. The company has a plant with 385 workers in the Sooner state. They will all be moved to Wisconsin over the next 24 months, officials said.

In addition, Hicks-Sorensen said, some county residents are not happy about the new tax.

“That is definitely not what we wanted as an outcome,” she said. “But overall, the magnitude and the scope of what would have happened had Mercury left far outweighs the concerns about the sales tax.”

Still, she said she has spoken to many business people who are “very, very supportive and thrilled” that Mercury Marine, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary in Fond du Lac, will stay.

Though in competition for jobs with Stillwater, Hicks-Sorensen said she has compassion for that community’s impending job losses.

“It’s unfortunate, but we forget that we are dealing on a global economy and this is a global company making global business decisions,” she said. (Mercury Marine is owned by Chicago-based Brunswick Corp.)

“But when the day is done, there are still families affected, whether they are in Fond du Lac or Stillwater,” she said. “We definitely feel for them and wish them the best.”

With a strong manufacturing base, Hicks-Sorensen said her county has been hit by the recession. Its jobless rate now stands at more than 9 percent, compared to the state’s 8.4 percent rate.

“We’ve experienced some challenges, but we also have had some opportunities,” she said.

Chicago Tube and Iron recently opened a 120,000-square-foot facility in Fond du Lac’s Fox Ridge Industrial Park. In addition, a new steel plant is expected to begin operations later this month, she said. Together, they will employ up to 70 workers.

“We also have a number of other projects that we hope will come to fruition in the next month,” she said, noting that her agency has an aggressive, customized marketing campaign and works closely with site selection companies to bring new companies to the county.

It is also working to stimulate start-ups generated from within the county and to generate new business for existing firms.

She said her agency recently received a $440,000 “economic gardening” grant that is focused on “growing our own.”
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