Fincantieri Marinette Marine CEO Mark Vandroff hopes residents of the area surrounding the shipbuilder’s grounds will forgive the company for the disruption of blasting and dredging work taking place to make way for work on the Constellation-class guided missile frigate contract. While noisy, the work is the sound of economic progress.

The shipbuilder is investing $200 million in capital expansions to prepare for the U.S. Navy contract, which could be worth $5.5 billion if all options are exercised. FMM has two ships under contract so far, and the Navy is requesting funding for the third of 10 ships in the budget that’s now on Capitol Hill. The Navy has made public its plans to eventually build a class of at least 20 of the vessels, Vandroff says.

The projects underway in Marinette include construction of Building 34, which will accommodate the building and erecting of two frigates at a time under cover and in a climate-controlled space. The frigate is both longer and heavier than the littoral combat ships FMM is now constructing and needed a larger facility. 

“If you’re driving toward the shipyard, it’s like approaching Lambeau Field,” Vandroff says of the size and scope of the new building.

The other major project is the installation of a Syncrolift, which will allow FMM to lower ships into the water more gently and effectively than traditional methods. When completed at the end of 2022, the Syncrolift will be the largest in the United States and will provide FMM a competitive advantage.

FMM also is investing in a new panel line that will be ready in December, when construction on the frigate will begin, as well as a paint shop. Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay is undergoing similar upgrades to assist with the contract. 

To meet talent needs for the new work, FMM is partnering with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and local high schools to recruit and train those interested in becoming welders and pipefitters. 

“The talent needs are great, and in the next two to three years, we will have to grow by nearly 50 percent in our trade workforce in order to get to two frigates a year,” Vandroff says.

Housing needed

As the Northwoods looks to attract more people to live there to help meet the talent needs of FMM and other businesses, housing is the biggest hurdle, says Roberta Davis, managing director of InVenture North, the economic development organization representing Marinette and Menominee counties. While Marinette has a strong daytime population, many of those people go home to Suamico, Green Bay and as far as Oshkosh at the end of the day.

“That is a struggle. We want them to be here in Marinette, and of course, housing plays a big role in that,” Davis says.

Counties and municipalities are working together to find ways to add housing. Communities are making some ground. Wausaukee has created a TIF district and is looking for developers to build some single-family homes on lots the village owns, and S.C. Swiderski, LLC is building 44 market-rate apartments in Niagara. Crivitz is looking to add some housing options as well.

Davis says Marinette is actively recruiting developers to bring housing projects to vacant lots in the city, but she says efforts to attract developers are competitive. Her organization and others meet frequently to discuss ways to incent developers to complete projects in the area.

One option for affordable housing, Trolley Station Terrace apartments, is slated to open in November in Marinette. Renters must meet income eligibility requirements to qualify.

Jennifer Short, economic development and tourism director for Marinette County, agrees that housing is needed, from affordable up to housing options that would appeal to high-income earners. She does see a trend with some people who owned vacation or second homes in Marinette County choosing to live in the community full time due to the pandemic and wanting to get away from larger cities.

An aging population will continue to present challenges for the area, however, with Marinette County having 74 percent of the national average of those in millennial age range. “We’re lagging behind there, and to compare that, we are 144 percent of the national average of folks who are aged to be retiring soon,” Short says.

Housing is a priority in Florence County as well, says Wendy Gehlhoff, economic development director for the county. In addition to traditional housing, the county needs an elder care facility that would provide options from independent living to assisted living to memory care. The county has land zoned for that purpose and is prepared to provide TID incentives to developers.

Outdoor abundance

Outdoor amenities are perhaps the greatest asset the Northwoods region has to offer. To help promote that, Florence, Marinette, Oconto and

Forest counties are collaborating to apply for a state Joint Effort Marketing (JEM) Grant that would promote the area to visitors. 

Gehlhoff says it would allow communities to promote Quad County Trail Adventures and outline weekend itineraries visitors can take advantage of. “When people come up here, they don’t really see the county borders. They’re just looking for, ‘Hey, where can we go? What makes it fun?’” she says.

The effort would market the area in the Fox Valley, Wausau and Milwaukee through all types of media. If the counties receive the grant, they plan to start work early next year and spend the money next April, May and June.

With attractions like waterfalls, miles of hiking and biking trails, ATV parks, and opportunities for activities like kayaking and hunting, the Northwoods offers it all, Short says. And while she would love to see more retailers and restaurants come to the area, she says it’s important to focus on what the region has, not what it lacks.

“Anyone who feels that Marinette is a fun place to play should look at Marinette County as a fun place to live and work too,” she says.