Gov. Tony Evers
Gov. Tony Evers
The annual meeting of the Vilas County Economic Development Corp. (VCEDC) on Friday served up words of encouragement from Gov. Tony Evers as businesses battle through the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to the governor, other speakers during the virtual meeting included Melissa “Missy” Hughes, Secretary and CEO of Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC), along with Kathy Schmitz, executive director, and Jim Tuckwell, board president, both of VCEDC.

The meeting concluded with the announcement of Business of the Year Award to Great Wisconsin Steak Co. in Manitowish Waters.

But it was Evers’ message that gave North Woods business leaders a brighter outlook for 2021.

Taking note of the “extraordinary difficult year” that 2020 has been, Evers said, “There is hope on the horizon with potential vaccines in 2021. We still have a long road ahead of us, especially as our local communities work to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I know you’re working hard on rewriting the rural narrative, and folks that is exactly the work that you should be doing.” 

Evers’ comment referenced civic leaders in small towns who are successfully challenging the narrative that their downtowns are replete with empty storefronts and lack of opportunities for young people.

“But we also know that there’s always more we can do to support rural economies and Main Street businesses across our state, from expanding access to broadband and health care services, investing in our schools, and fixing our roads and bridges,” Evers continued.

He pointed out WEDC’s success in administering the “small business grant program, which now totals $185 million of grant funds for small businesses and has already assisted more than 26,000 small businesses across the state.

“We’ve also invested more than $70 million in Wisconsin’s lodging, performance venues, movie theaters cultural organizations and tourism industry, which I know is a major Woods economy,” said Evers.

Federal funding to help small businesses under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act runs out Dec. 31. He urged listeners to contact federal authorities and elected representatives to provide additional financial support.

Wisconsin used $5 million of CARES funding, with additional funding in the state budget, to expand high speed Internet service in the state.

One of the beneficiaries was the town of Boulder Junction, which received a $1.6 million grant from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission for that purpose. 

“Since that time, almost 80% of the homes and businesses along the route have indicated they will subscribe to the (CenturyLink’s fiber optic Internet) service,” Evers said.

The recently announced broadband connectedness pilot program “will help communities get connected by providing technical assistance to help them apply for federal, state and private sector broadband expansion grants, because we found out that many communities reported they just needed a little extra help to reaching the funds that were already out.”

The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Chippewa Indians is one of the participants in the pilot program, he said.

Small business help

During her message, Hughes said small businesses have an array of resources they can tap into as they start up, expand or hold their own during the pandemic.

At Evers’ direction, WEDC formed The Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity, which “seeks to tap local perspectives on long-term, recent and future economic challenges facing the people, communities and businesses that make rural Wisconsin shine — and to turn ideas into action that increases economic activity and improves the quality of life for future generation,” according to the WEDC website.

“We’ve created in Wisconsin an incredible level of support, a network of support, whether it’s economic development corporations like the Vilas County Economic Development Corporation, or local chambers, or our banks and our credit unions. We have all of these ways to support small businesses,” Hughes said.

WEDC is currently in its phase 2 of providing “We’re All In” $5,000 grants to eligible small businesses affected by COVID-19, Hughes said, adding there’s more help to come.

“Finally we have phase three, which is really seeking to help those restaurants and gathering places,” she said. “That’s $45 million that will be deployed to restaurants, bowling alleys and amusement centers that are between 1 and 7 million dollars in annual revenue. They’ll be getting $20,000 grants.”

The Department of Revenue (DOR) in collaboration with WEDC will administer the program. Unlike previous “We’re All In” grants, businesses will not have to apply for the grants, but will be identified and contacted directly by the DOR based on the businesses’ state tax records. Some 95% of the estimated 2,000 establishments eligible are restaurants, according to an earlier WEDC press release.

“If you have businesses like that, that you’re working with, please tell them to be watching their e-mail for notifications from the Department of Revenue,” she said.

Hughes urged small business owners and managers to check WEDC’s website for updates and accurate information in dealing with covid-fueled issues, such as troubling mental health concerns, and the vaccine rollout.

She also noted that her agency plans to help small businesses develop their online presence on the Internet. WEDC says broadband expansion is among the top three issues of the agency. But, Hughes added, businesses have to look beyond than just having a website presence, as businesses have to be ready with shipping and customer service.

Challenging year

“No doubt, with COVID-19, it’s been a challenging and emotional year for everyone,” said Schmitz, who is entering her second year as executive director. She promised to continue focusing on Vilas County businesses.

“Our business is here for your business. And we’ll do whatever we can to help,” said Schmitz.

She said VCEDC has a “one-stop” COVID-19 resource page” on their website, along with informational webinars and one-to-one counseling to assist grant applications. In addition, they provide help with financial options, marketing and social media promotion, all with the goal of “building a stronger Northwoods economy.”

Tuckwell thanked all the donors and volunteers, including those on the board of directors, who assisted VCEDC the past year, as well as appreciation to Schmitz and the Vilas County Board of Supervisors and others.

Dave Juday, who is stepping down as vice chairman, but not off the board, was recognized at the earlier board meeting for his service.

In other actions at the earlier meeting, the board elected Tuckwell to serve another year as board chairman; appointed board member Noah Lottig as vice chairman. Lottig is a research scientist with the UW-Madison Center for Limnology. Re-elected for one year terms were treasurer Patty Krarup and secretary April Welch. Jonathan Chamberlain, CPA, was elected a new board member. In November, Stefan Anderson, head of Culver Academy (former Conserve School), was elected to the board.

Tuckwell said their group is committed “to continuing our day-to-day support for our area businesses and startups” through the pandemic, offering help in business plans and identifying financing resources, as well as furthering expansion of broadband, seen as critical to the tourism trade and “to broaden our economy.”

VCEDC stands ready to help all sizes of small businesses, those employing a dozen or more but also where the owner is the sole employee, he said. This past year they worked with 16 businesses interested in startups or moving to Vilas County. Of those 16, five began business in Vilas – all with a single employee.

VCEDC also has an important role in building and supporting “a community of business leaders throughout the Northwoods. We see the value, a huge value, in getting us all connected.” The challenge is identifying those remote workers.

“We want to help connect entrepreneurs to share experiences and just provide a part of the answer to the social needs as well as business needs for our Northwoods community.”

Tuckwell said they are working with individual townships in helping them develop their individual broadband capabilities, as “one size does not fit all in Vilas County.” The group will continue searching out possible grants to fund such endeavors, he added.

Business of year 

The VCEDC executive committee selected the winner of the annual Business of the Year Award, first proposed by Schmitz, from the list of the monthly awardees starting in February. Criteria included innovation, creativity, success they were having and giving back to the community.

Great Wisconsin Steak Company was launched last April as a branch business by John McGraw, owner of the Chippewa Retreat Resort in Manitowish Waters, following a downturn in their lodging business due to the covid pandemic.

He and his wife learned to source and cook grass-fed meat, losing some personal pounds in the process, according to their monthly award last August. After mastering the Sous Vide process of cooking steaks in their modern commercial kitchen, they sell the steaks online.

According to their website (, “Sous Vide, French for ‘cooking under vacuum,’ is a slow-cooked (to medium rare) then frozen method used by fine restaurants and major hotel brands.”