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‘Sustainability’ keys Ashland comprehensive plan

Document cements move away from ‘boom-bust’ development 
by Don Jacobson

Pictured: Ashland Mayor Fred Schnook holds a copy of the new Ashland Comprehensive Plan, a document he had a large part in crafting. (Photo: Don Jacobson)

More than two years in the making, the city of Ashland is finalizing a new comprehensive plan representing a decisive move away from the the city’s long-standing imperative of “economic growth at any cost.”

It would replace that easy-to-understand mantra with something more complicated, reflecting the uncertainty surrounding Ashland’s post-industrial future.

Bottom line: Past practices of pouring money into recruiting efforts for mass-production manufacturing will be pushed aside in favor of “sustainability.” Only new businesses that plow benefits back into the community rather than sending profits to distant owners — a hallmark of boom-bust economies — will be supported.

The new plan sets development of “creative” new businesses and protecting the local environment as major priorities, which hold the most promise for a city trying to reinvent itself, according to drafters and supporters. They hope it will pass the city council in October.

Mayor Fred Schnook, a prime contributor, said it presents a balanced approach for propping up the city’s existing industrial base while adding strong controls over new development. Simply, the kinds of basic industrial jobs Ashland always has depended upon no longer will be a priority, recognizing “those days are gone,” he said.

“There were more than 100 people involved in drafting this plan. To reach the consensus that we did, we had to change people like me, who still think in terms of going to the factory with your lunch pail, where you start at six and you end at three and you’ll be home in time to watch TV. Those days are gone whether we like it or not,” he said.

The mayor includes himself among business owners, blue-collar and white-collar workers, who long for those old days.

“I worked in an automobile plant for years. I knew what my place was in society. All the male, female and societal role models were very clear,” he said.

“This new stuff’s fuzzy. You’re talking about a creative economy where you add creative content to products and services. It’s not as rigid, it’s not as formal, but it’s also — for folks like me who were raised in the old economy — not as comfortable,” Schnook said.

Overarching goals of the plan document are threefold: to continue to encourage business development, to balance that with protecting the environment, and to add to the city’s quality of life.

“Look at our history, starting with the fur trading in the 1600s, then going on to resource extraction, then to shipping, and then manufacturing — which have all come and gone,” he said.

“That’s been Ashland’s history and I want to make sure we don’t repeat it again, that we’re really bringing about sustainable development. That’s a fundamental shift,” Schook said.

The plan recognizes that Ashland has become a service economy that includes well-paid professional positions in desirable business sectors, which in Ashland’s case can mean eco-industry. For instance, Schnook said the plan supports his goal of establishing an “eco-hub” in the city based around existing environmental assets, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Fishery Resources station, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources service station, the Sigurd Olson Institute at Northland College and the Apostle Island National Lakeshore.

Ashland already is well along in that service sector shift: Eight of the city’s 10 largest employers are health care, government or retail employers (the exceptions are C.G. Bretting and Larson-Juhl).

In service economies, it’s important to adhere to sustainability principles that put the city’s long-term interests first, said city councilor Mary Rehwald, a member of the comprehensive plan committee.

“I’m very optimistic about this plan,” she said. “Eco-industrial development is good for the city. This plan does support sustainable development, and I think eco-industry is a very real possible niche for us. We already have so many sustainable projects that have been done. “

With the world becoming increasingly aware of environmental issues such as global warming, business is flowing to areas that can offer a clean place to live and work and which puts local concerns above bringing in the wrong kinds of industry, she said.

“One part of the new plan clearly states that we prefer to recruit value-added businesses and value-added industries which our environment can sustain,” Rehwald said. “It also supports getting small businesses started. In another part, it calls for developing and implementing government procurement practices that go to locally produced products and services. That’s key to sustainability.”

Another spoke in the eco-development wheel envisioned by the comprehensive plan is establishing the Chequamegon Bayfront as a recreation and entertainment center. That means not only cleaning up the polluted Kreher Park Superfund site on the waterfront, but also citing new housing and businesses there.

“We’re moving from a blue-collar, ore-dock society into a services and recreation economy,” said James Hamp, M.D., who serves on Ashland’s Planning Commission and chaired the lakefront portion of the comprehensive plan. “The waterfront is one of our key long-term assets. That’s the direction they’re going in places like Traverse City and Marquette, MI.

“My committee has a vision of setting goals to develop that ladder on how to get there within 20 years,” Hamp added.

Rehwald said one of the key sentences in the plan is one that states “there’s a new language being used in Ashland, one of ‘development’ and not of ‘growth.’ It helps business retention and expansion rather than getting a new business to come here.”

That focus on business retention is key to business community support for the comprehensive plan, said Frank Kempf, executive director of the Ashland Area Development Corp., a member of the plan’s steering committee, and chairman of the economic development subcommittee.

“I think some people in the business community hear ‘sustainability,’ and they don’t know if it’s something to be feared,” he said. “Basically what it boils down to is in my interpretation of ‘sustainability,’ we would look to attract new businesses that would help sustain and promote development of our existing businesses.”

For instance: If an established manufacturer produces lumber, recruiting efforts might target other companies that could use it to produce value-added wood products, he said.

“That’s the basic concept,” Kempf said. “There is some language in the plan that is maybe a little bit upsetting to some in the business community. Some of the words that have been used need to be clarified ands changed. Some people aren’t too sure what it means.”

The eight-member development subcommittee Kempf chaired included five with ties to Ashland’s business community: Michael BeBeau, Xcel Energy’s

community relations manager; Marlin Hofmeyer, Ashland Daily Press, former publisher; Suzan MacKenzie-Smith of Designer’s Outlet; Don Marcouiller, WITC-Ashland campus administrator; and Mary McPhetridge, president of the Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce.

Schnook, Kempf and Hamp all cautioned that implementation of the goals in the comprehensive plan will be a long and difficult process. Parts that require funding will be especially hard to launch, and special interests will attempt to slow or stop the process.

“The really hard part for the waterfront plan will be getting the zoning changes,” Hamp said. “The ordinances around Highway 2 will have to be changed because they’re old-fashioned. We have to develop a new code that allows industry, housing and small business into the same area.

“It’ll be an ever-changing document, but it will be codified and serve as a basis for our future,” he said.

Useful links:
City of Ashland Comprehensive Plan
Sigurd Olson Institute
Ashland Fishery Resources Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service