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August 2014

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County Chairman Paul Decker: Waukesha County should flex influence and muscle

It's "music to the ears" of business people who gathered at the Hartland Music Center on Feb. 20.

"Waukesha County has close to 400,000 people. We're about eight percent of the state's population," said County Board Chairman Paul Decker to a gathering sponsored by the Hartland Chamber of Commerce. "We're close to 13 percent of the state's economic output. That's the largest differentiation per capita in terms of the number of people putting out the most, economically, in the state.

"We're also one of the biggest differentiations throughout the country, but that difference gives us a bit of influence and muscle. But a lot of people, even in my district, that don't understand that," Decker said.

Decker said that Waukesha County has the largest amount of county roads, especially roads that are improved and expanded for area businesses - from Kohl's Corporate to local industrial parks.

They're redoing Janesville Road in Muskego - a costly project that's costing almost $30 million.

They're also building a new Health and Human Services building - about a $36 million price tag.

Infrastructure, such as road projects, is an ongoing issue for Decker. He explained that the counties are responsible for maintaining state roads so he's lobbying with state legislators for more support.

"Your constituents are our constituents. Our constituents are your constituents. We're not asking for any money from the state. We don't ask for money - we really can't. Being the largest donor county in the state - which we are, we understand that - we'd just like some of the money that we put in," Decker said.

Other joint ventures sound more promising.

Decker said the Waukesha County Airport is looking to add two new terminals. It's keeping busy due to corporate traffic in Southeastern Wisconsin and low fuel costs. Many emergency responders, such as Flight for Life, will choose Waukesha County Airport for refueling. They're splitting the costs with the state to expand the runways and tarmac, roughly $560,000 from the county's contingency fund.

"We are the third busiest airport in the state - between Mitchell Field and Dane County - and it's all from corporate traffic… which tells us as an economic indicator that (with) more corporate traffic coming in and out, then the economy is coming up," Decker said.

Business is good in the county, yes, but harder notes were hit during the presentation, too. Decker discussed the skills gap and the need for collaboration.

"I kept hearing, 'We need eight more people that have technical skills, eight more people, eight more people,' and it was all these manufacturers. Small manufacturers that you've never even heard of. They're all in little industrial parks like this one … But I started adding up the numbers. … We're over 800 jobs in Waukesha County. And the big 'if' there is 'if' we can find the right people with the right skills set," Decker said.

It sounds tough, Decker said, but they're "soft" skills such as showing up to work on time, ninth-grade math skills, 10th-grade reading skills, successful drug tests and the like.

"I don't know if you know this, but we're no longer in the industrial times. We're in the technology times," he said.

This skills gap will only get worse in two years after what he called the "silver tsunami" arrives. People who are close to retirement age will work less, need more services and spend less money. Waukesha, in particular, Decker said, has an unbalanced population where more people are over the age of 50 vs. under the age of 30.

"(In a perfect world) we would be the machine shop of the world, of the United States. We would lead southeastern Wisconsin, the rest of Wisconsin, in terms of developing the best, smartest engineers and technicians that are part of a world class. … We need to have that kind of manufacturing to have a higher quality of life. Retail is important, service is important … but the challenge is that we have to make things in order to have that baseline to our economy," he said.

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