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Kenosha at the crossroads

Harborside Common Grounds, a coffee shop along the Kenosha harbor, attracts patrons for sunshine and socializing. (Photo submitted by Kenosha Area Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Harborside Common Grounds, a coffee shop along the Kenosha harbor, attracts patrons for sunshine and socializing. (Photo submitted by Kenosha Area Convention & Visitors Bureau)

There is a mixed-use development with a public park, residential condominiums, commercial space and three museums where a Chrysler assembly plant once stood in Kenosha.

The city spearheaded the development, but, in some cases, the change is only skin deep.

“This entire region is challenged coming out of this recession because of the shift in manufacturing globally,” said Ray Forgianni, who was Kenosha’s city planner during the Chrysler site transition. “The great recession has been made much worse. Recovery in employment will not be in the manufacturing field.

“The salvation for this community is that it is mixed.”

The mix in the Chrysler development so far is not exactly what the city expected. While Forgianni estimated the condominiums are 60 percent occupied, Kenosha Mayor Keith Bosman said many of the occupants are part-time visitors or Chicago residents.

Harbor Park and the Kenosha Public Museum are part of the mixed-use development that has replaced a Chrysler assembly plant in Kenosha. (Photo submitted by Kenosha City Development)

Harbor Park and the Kenosha Public Museum are part of the mixed-use development that has replaced a Chrysler assembly plant in Kenosha. (Photo submitted by Kenosha City Development)

“We thought they would create a density of population to bring an upgrade to downtown commercial buildings,” Bosman said, “but it turned out to be more vacation homes.”

Consistency in the population used to be a way of life in Kenosha. There was a time when families could count on going to work for the same manufacturer generation after generation. Now, the city is facing another closing as the Chrysler engine plant is slated to end operations by the end of the year.

“We’ve lost our old manufacturing base,” Bosman said.

The community has matched the changing times by adding 120 new businesses during the past 20 years through redevelopments, he said. But, Bosman said, the economic downturn has left empty spaces in industrial parks.

“I look forward to the economy coming back,” he said, “and we have the space ready to go when that happens.”

Some of the workers might not be there, though. Glenn Stark, United Auto Workers president of Local 72 at the Kenosha Chrysler plant, said many employees who lost their jobs are eligible for some type of retirement package, but he doesn’t have enough seniority to qualify. He said he doesn’t expect to find a comparable job in the area.

A student trains on a computer numeric control machine at Gateway Technical College. The college collaborates with local employers to design training specifically around the community’s needs, according to Debbie Davidson, a Gateway vice president. (Photos submitted by Gateway Technical College)

A student trains on a computer numeric control machine at Gateway Technical College. The college collaborates with local employers to design training specifically around the community’s needs, according to Debbie Davidson, a Gateway vice president. (Photos submitted by Gateway Technical College)

“I will probably have to go to Detroit or Kokomo (Ind.) or Belvidere (Ill.),” Stark said.

But Kenosha still is trying to prepare those who remain for the changes that will come, said Debbie Davidson, Gateway Technical College vice president, Workforce and Economic Development Division.

“When the (Kenosha Area Business Alliance) is entertaining a company,” she said, “we will meet with them and show them the resources the college can offer to retrain their current employees or prepare the existing work force.”

For instance, Davidson said, the college offers 14- to 20-week accelerated programs that focus on an employment need in the community and simulate the work environment. Collaborating with local employers, the college designs the training specifically around needs.

When a company leaves, Davidson said, she is part of the team that meets with employees about next steps and educational opportunities.

“It’s a chance to start a different career or to start your own business,” she said.

It may take displaced workers six months to decide to explore educational options, but there are needs in the community, Davidson said.

“Hopefully, there is an uptick,” she said.

That uptick depends on regional cooperation, said Lou Molitor, executive director of the Kenosha Area Chamber of Commerce. He said the city of Kenosha and Kenosha County are part of a larger business region, and to benefit the entire region, each county, town, city and company must work together.

“Are we perfect? No,” Molitor said. “But collaboration makes it a lot easier to develop and grow Kenosha County.”

Todd Battle, president of KABA, said the organization has helped attract new businesses to the community by aggressively marketing the area’s advantages. Recent successes include U-line Corp.’s corporate headquarters, slated to open in May, as well as Affiliated Foods Midwest Cooperative Inc. and Centrisys Corp.

“We’re very competitively positioned in the heart of the I-94 corridor to attract businesses, attract families,” Battle said. “We’re an hour’s drive north and south to Milwaukee and Chicago.”

Location and an effort to adjust to a changing economy could combine to turn the theory of mixed use into the reality of a mixed marketplace.

“We still have manufacturing,” Bosman said. “And we also have skilled machining, distribution, warehousing and tourism.”

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