Bob Egan, retiring as executive director of the Vilas County Economic Development Corp. (VCEDC), received a standing ovation at the group’s annual meeting at the Lake of the Torches Resort Casino in Lac du Flambeau last Friday.

Egan assumed the duties of interim executive director in 2013 after the previous executive director had a health issue. That “interim” role lasted a good half dozen years, said Egan, with a chuckle, as he made the rounds earlier to greet the several dozen attendees.

Jim Tuckwell, VCEDC board chairman, praised Egan and also introduced the group’s new executive director, Kathy Schmitz, of the public-private, nonprofit corporation.

“The advice and counsel I’ve gotten (from Egan) has been invaluable,” said Tuckwell, who presented the retiring official with a plaque and a monetary gift from board members and others. Egan will remain as a board member.

The annual meeting also included reports on the Lac du Flambeau Business Development Corporation and Nicolet College community partnerships.


New director

Schmitz took over from Egan as executive director on Nov. 13. She received a bachelor of arts degree in journalism at Marquette University and a master’s degree in business administration at Cardinal Stritch University. Since 2013, she was executive director of the Medical Society of Milwaukee County and Medical Society of Milwaukee Foundation.

A former vacationer in the North Woods, Schmitz told the group, “There is nothing better than returning to Vilas County as an adult to live and work, serving the Economic Development Corporation.” 

She noted that the expansion of high-speed internet in the county offers not only opportunities for individuals and families to have the recreational experiences she had as a child, but also to make a living wage.

Imagine, she said, living in a county with 1,300 “beautiful lakes” and with high-speed internet and a laptop computer or phone and being “able to communicate with colleagues around the state, country, around the globe. We truly offer the best of both worlds.

“So I am so inspired with our combined leadership expertise that together we will strengthen existing businesses, and bring in new, small, medium and large businesses to sustain and create jobs so they too can live their dreams,” said Schmitz, who lives in Eagle River.

Tribal employment

Randy Soulier, chief operations officer of the Lac du Flambeau Business Development Corporation, spoke about the different services and operations of the tribe. He said meetings, such as the VCEDC’s annual meeting, helps encourage partnerships with other communities. 

The tribe employs nearly 1,000 people, with about half being nontribal members. As such, they are the largest employer in Vilas County, he said.

In addition to the new LdF County Market currently under construction, Soulier pointed to the development of the LdF business park which will have a workforce training center. 

Corresponding to the tribe’s focus on jobs and enterprises has been an increase of nearly $7,000 in median household income from 2010 to 2017 on the reservation to $27,381. The Vilas County median household income as a whole was nearly $43,000 in 2017, while the state’s median household income was nearly $58,000 for the same year.

Nicolet partnership

Nicolet College President Richard Nelson outlined the ways the community college is changing to meet the needs of a new generation of students, many of them older than traditional students and savvy with social media and other communication means.

“Instead of asking people to conform to our expectations and policies and programs, we felt the obligation to change was ours,” he said.

“So this evolved over the past 14 months into this concept that we call the ‘GRID’ initiative (acronym for Guiding Rural Innovation and Development). The GRID is a network of businesses, of service providers, public and private individuals that believe that an entre­pre­neurial economy, an entre­preneurial ecosystem, is the future of sustainable economic prosperity in this region,” said Nelson.

Rather than chasing “smokestacks” (large industries) that are not likely to relocate in rural areas such as Vilas County, the focus is on tapping local business talent — active and retired — to grow business opportunities, the college official said.

“We have successful people, that want to be here, that we can tap into their success to help others succeed as well,” Nelson said.

Nicolet College offers an entrepreneurship-training program to people who want to run their own businesses. Since its inception, the program has seen 105 graduates with about a third starting a business or improving their current one. 

Sandy Bishop, Nicolet’s executive director for Economic & Community Development, also had praise for Egan.

“Bob Egan has been a tremendous supporter and friend of the college,” she said. “He’s been our main point of contact here for all of our entrepreneur initiatives.”

Egan also serves on the Nicolet Board of Trustees as an employer member.

Also making remarks were Sam Rikkers, chief operating officer of Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and State Sen. Tom Tiffany.