Questions remain for Evansville ag complex

July 1, 2013

From “Group pitches world-class agriculture complex in Evansville, but questions remain” — By Rob Schultz – EVANSVILLE — A group of business and community leaders from southwestern Wisconsin wants to build a state-of-the-art complex here that will boost agriculture with facilities focusing on education, research, entertainment and promotion of the industry.

Executives of agricultural businesses and a technical college have endorsed a proposal to build a $32 million Wisconsin Ag Education & Innovation Complex on 200 acres on the outskirts of Evansville.

It could include space for Blackhawk Technical College’s enhanced ag department and other schools for all levels of education as well as apprenticeship programs.

It also could include research and retail facilities, and a high-tech agricultural “discovery” center built around models like Disney World’s Epcot and the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry.

The Rock County 4-H Fair is also considering moving there, and other tourist attractions promoting agriculture are being planned.

“People tell us we’re talking about big things, but they all fit together very well and complement each other in a way that we think creates a unique benefit I have not seen anywhere else,” said Kennan Wood, a member of the Southwest Wisconsin Agricultural Group (SWAG), which is behind the project.

SWAG believes the complex could create more than 300 jobs and turn out thousands of qualified ag workers, but it won’t become reality until endorsements are turned into cash.

SWAG will start fundraising efforts soon with a goal of

$25 million. The remaining

$7 million needed to complete the project is expected to come from other sources.

“There is a gap between saying, ‘That’s a great idea and I support it,’ to ‘Let me stroke you a check with six or seven or eight zeroes on it.’ It’s our job to bridge that gap the right way,” said Tom DiFiore, the president of Atlanta-based National Community Development Services, which is helping SWAG sell the project to potential donors on regional, state and national levels.

Leaders of SWAG are optimistic their efforts over the past several months will help them raise enough money to get the project started as early as next year. They are also bracing for the possibility of starting in two years — or not at all — if fundraising efforts don’t go well.

“Is it a slam dunk? Absolutely not. Is it doable? Yes, with the right strategies,” DiFiore said.

Questions about focus

What constitutes “the right strategies” is up for debate.

SWAG officials are keen on creating a place for tourists to learn about agriculture and the kind of jobs one can find in the industry.

They believe Evansville is the perfect site because it’s in farm country and the acreage will include corn fields and other crops for research that can be part of the tour.

They also want visitors to learn that, like manufacturing, the ag industry is no longer dark, dirty and dangerous. They want to make a trip to the complex fun and unforgettable for everybody.

“We have to get rid of that old stereotype that haunts agriculture,” said SWAG official John Morning, who hatched the idea for the complex.

But the entertainment features could keep organizers from raising the money they need, two local business executives said.

SWAG officials hope for a few big corporations with deep pockets to get the fundraising campaign off to a fast start with major pledges of more than $1 million.

Its best selling point is that the gifts would be more of an investment than a donation, DiFiore added.

John Deere & Co. is looking at the proposal, Morning said. So is Madison-based BouMatic, which is a global manufacturer and supplier of milking systems and dairy farm equipment, and Kuhn Manufacturing in Brodhead.

All three companies like the project because it has the potential to turn out more skilled-trade workers and others who are desperately needed to fill key roles in agri-businesses across the country.

BouMatic President Bob Luna said if schools at the complex train and educate students on the value of working on a farm, BouMatic will profit because “it provides people who will go out and want to sell our products, people who want to provide technical support for our products, and people who want to open dealerships.”

Luna also said the research and education phases of the complex would help potential farmers learn about the technological advances that will make their operations more profitable.

“They will recognize they don’t have to have 5,000 cows to make money, that the small family farm is still a viable option because technology helps them make money,” Luna added. “But they have to be properly educated in all those channels.”

Questions about scope

Luna said SWAG needs to build the complex in the right sequence and put its focus initially on raising money for education and research. That way, he said, the project can get started with much less than $25 million.

“If they do that, I think that what they have has a lot of merit,” he said. “If the scope is too wide, you’ll never get the ball rolling on this.”

Paul Jadin, president of the Madison Region Economic Partnership, formerly known as Thrive, has given SWAG officials the same advice.

“It’s getting a little too diverse and a little too large,” Jadin said. “They need to go back and make sure they are trying to be who they intended to be all along.”

Jadin said his economic development group believes the project has the potential to have a national and, perhaps, global impact on the agricultural industry if it keeps its focus on establishing strong educational and research facilities.

It also would have an opportunity to apply for federal funding, and he said his group would help with such grant requests.

Blackhawk Technical College’s pledge to move its ag programs to the complex once SWAG raises the needed money is the project’s most positive development so far.

Ag classes would move to Evansville from the college’s Monroe campus, and expand to include classes where students could learn how to install and repair GPS systems and other technologies that are used in modern farm equipment, Blackhawk president Tom Eckert said.

He also said the school could split its diesel program and create an ag repair class for combines and other machinery. Another possibility is to create a place at the complex to demonstrate new technology to farmers and help them learn about it.

Eckert said SWAG has a dream that’s within its reach.

“Combining information with education and experimentation — it all seems to be the right combination and the right location,” he said.



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