Our Towns: Marinette business fit for a queen

The bay of Green Bay offers plenty of wide-open water for sailing enthusiasts in the Marinette area.

Marie Antoinette Chevalier (1784-1865) was not a let-them-eat-cake type, for one gets the impression she would much rather have marketed the cake and sold it, as opposed to just giving it away. Queen Marinette, as she would become known, proved to be a savvy businesswoman centuries before it became fashionable, and would no doubt approve of the kind of business community her namesake, the northeastern Wisconsin community of 11,000 people, has become.

In her own way, the formidable-looking queen was a serial entrepreneur, having established a fur-trading post on the banks of the Menominee River. She would not sit idly by as it slumped during the War of 1812, opting to start a school and later moving to the site where Marinette now stands and building an American Fur Company trading post into a large trading center.

Given this determination, there is no way that Marinette’s current denizens, especially those in the business community, can fail to live up to her legacy. Considering the way the community responds to economic highs and lows, they haven’t let her down.

Down to business

Located about 60 miles north of Green Bay on U.S. 41, Marinette’s largest employers include the ship builder Marinette Marine, Tyco Fire Products, and Karl Schmidt Unisia, which produces a variety of pistons for gasoline and diesel-engine customers. Here, the peaks and valleys of manufacturing are part of life’s fabric.

Perhaps nobody understands this better than Mary Johns, who grew up in Marinette and now serves as executive director and CEO of the Marinette Menominee Area Chamber of Commerce. “I’ve seen ups and downs here all my life,” Johns said. “Plants will lay people off, and they will hire them back. That’s been a way of life for a number of companies in our community.”

Even though Marinette County saw its unemployment rate drop to 9.6% in February 2012, down from 11.2% in February of 2011, the community isn’t leaving further progress to chance. The biggest economic development challenge here is maintaining a strong supply of quality labor for area employers, so when Marinette Marine secured more contracts to build littoral combat ships for the U.S. Navy, the company needed the help of local schools to ramp up its workforce.

“We’ve developed a strategy to be the premier marine training center in Midwest. It’s larger than the Marinette Marine contract.” – Pat O'Hara, dean of NWTC

Marinette Marine has signed a contract with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) that calls for the college to provide 130,000 person-hours of training to the company’s incumbent employees and new hires among electricians, shipfitters, welders, and pipe fitters. A former Goodwill Industries building has been remodeled for the training, and it will serve as the North Coast Marine Manufacturing Training Center.

Pat O’Hara, dean of NWTC, said North Coast was not only developed for Marinette Marine, but other Wisconsin members of the Fincantieri group of companies (Ace Marine in Green Bay and Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay), plus Palmer Johnson in Sturgeon Bay, Burger Boat Co. in Manitowoc, Cruisers Yachts in Oconto, and Marquis Yachts in Pulaski.

“We’ve developed a strategy to be the premier marine training center in Midwest,” O’Hara said. “It’s larger than the Marinette Marine contract.”

Such education and business partnerships are commonplace here. Local high schools have modified their vocational programs to meet Marinette Marine’s need for special welding skills, which gives chief executive Chuck Goddard plenty of reasons to sing the praises of Marinette’s civic leaders. They are “incredibly supportive” of the local business community, he stated.

In addition to the training initiative, Goddard cited a tax incremental financing district that is designed to improve the shipyard and advance parking, Main Street improvements, and other business development. “In a couple of years, we’ll see a huge transformation in this area,” he said.

Signs of economic growth extend beyond Marinette Marine. Tyco Fire Products’ Marinette facility, which produces fire-suppression products and systems, just opened a $10 million center of excellence as part of its fire school. Winsert, Inc., a designer of alloys for various industrial components, is expanding its Marinette plant.

Twin Cities

When thinking of Marinette as a destination, you have to factor its twin city, Menominee, Mich., as part of a package. The two communities are in separate states but are connected by more than the Interstate Bridge over the Menominee River. Both communities, with a combined population of 20,000, provide the workforce for area businesses, and each complements the other culturally and recreationally.

If you’re planning a summer weekend visit, you’re likely to spend time in both, especially if you’re into boating or sailing, biking, and fishing or fishing tournaments like the M&M Great Lakes Sport Fishermen Brown Trout Derby.

Sailing on Green Bay and boating on the Menomonee River are accommodated with marinas, boat landings, and boat-charter services.

Parks and beaches take full advantage of the waterfront, as Menominee’s Waterfront Festival, a four-day event that takes place at Great Lakes Memorial Marina Park, is held on the first full weekend in August.

“I used all of the parks here as a kid, and I can’t pick a favorite,” Johns said. “It’s just a great place to grow up, especially in the summer.”

The area is home to several 18-hole golf courses that also feature dining and banquet facilities; in recent years, several equestrian clubs have emerged.

Softball, soccer, and hockey are big here, and fitness-conscious residents gravitate to a domed sports facility, the Marinette Civic Center, the site of indoor basketball, ice- skating, tennis, and volleyball.

A sunset concert series on Stephenson Island, the former site of a mill at the foot of the Interstate Bridge in Marinette, features local acts. Music lovers also take in an occasional performance by the visiting Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

This statue outside the Marinette County Historical Society Logging Museum is a reminder of the community's business roots. Photo: Gloria Breuer Photography

Art fairs, juried art shows, and Theater on the Bay, a community theater at UW-Marinette, add to the cultural flavor. Some Theater on the Bay performers transitioned to academic careers, but one who made it beyond the local stage is Kelly Hanley Keaton, the professional actress who plays Mary Todd Lincoln in a now famous Geico commercial.

Driving around town, visitors will notice that downtown Marinette draws people who patronize farmers markets and antique shops, and that stately residences adorning Riverside Avenue feature a variety of 19th and mid-20th century architecture, including several homes once owned by the logging and lumber barons who built the community. They include Lauerman House Inn, a restaurant/bed-and-breakfast once occupied by, and named for, the family that ran a local department store.

When you’ve worked up an appetite, Menominee offers intimate Italian cuisine in the form of Table Six; steaks and seafood at the Landing; and made-from-scratch cuisine in the Serving Spoon, a converted home, and Schloegel’s Bay View Restaurant. In Marinette, cravings are satisfied at Blue Bike Burrito and the Avenue Bar and Grill at the Best Western Riverfront Inn – and thanks to a rather creative chef who hails from Atlanta, Lauerman House Inn serves American fare with a hint of French and southern influence.

Entering Marinette on Hwy. 41, there is a charming piece of Americana known as Mickey-Lu’s Bar-B-Q, where hamburgers are prepared on the restaurant’s original grill and miniature juke boxes on the counter offer classics like “Okie From Muskogee.”

Among the local squares that have a ball are Kurt and Gloria Breuer, who enjoy sailing on Green Bay, sometimes cruising the 17 nautical miles across to Door County. They note that an active fleet of sailboats frequently race during the summer months out of the M&M Yacht Club, especially in the club’s annual “100 Miler” race.

In addition to Green Bay and the Menominee River, local waterways include the Peshtigo River and Lake Noquebay (near Crivitz), which is the site of water-ski shows throughout the summer. “These waterways offer good fishing and scenery, but the Peshtigo River also is well known as having the best whitewater [known as the Roaring Rapids section] in the state,” Kurt Breuer noted.

Cycling is a favorite outdoor activity in the Marinette area.

Cycling is served by scenic roads through local forests, fields, and along the aforementioned bodies of water. Of particular note is the Menominee River Century Bicycle Ride, held every year since 1982 on the last Sunday of June. It is one of the largest rides in Wisconsin, as the route starts in Marinette, proceeds along Green Bay and the Peshtigo River, and then along the east side of the Menominee River.

“One of my favorite routes is along the shoreline, north or south,” Breuer stated. “My daughter Rebecca and I did a tour on our tandem around the entire north half of Lake Michigan, crossing back to Wisconsin in the ferry from Ludington, Mich. to Manitowoc, in 2004.

“I could go on and on, as this area has such a great combination of industry that provides good jobs, coupled with a beautiful countryside, on the same bay as Door County, but not as expensive and crowded.”

Goddard, a native of Connecticut who is married to an All-American skeet shooter, loves the area’s fishing, hunting, and hiking opportunities. Wife Hannah grew up on a small dairy farm in Virginia and, except for snow, feels right at home here.

O’Hara, who hails from Iowa and enjoys being around water, also enjoys the community theater and the overall quality of life the area has to offer.

The common denominator is that Marinette is a “fooler” of a community that is more than what it seems from the outside. 

Boom town

Johns is among the Marinette natives who left to pursue higher education, and eventually found their way back to its charms. Having gone off to college and spent a good part of her professional career in Madison, she would occasionally feel homesick. “I loved Madison, but I found myself, especially in the summer, thinking about what it would be like to be back here,” she said. “I didn’t get home that often. I was going to school and working, trying to pay off student loans, but I suspected I might come back some day.

“There are a lot of us ‘boomerangs,’ the baby boomers who went someplace else, got a college education, worked for awhile, and usually because we had aging parents or wanted to raise our children in a crime-free area, came back here.”

 In so doing, they continue to build a community that is surprising in many ways. Queen Marinette would approve.