Jason E. White (above) is the new chief executive officer of the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp. The following transcript has been edited for space and clarity.
- You’ve been in Oshkosh for a couple of months—what are your first impressions?
What has been interesting to me is that there are so many layers to uncover in this community. Oshkosh has some significant and well-known employers, and the opportunity to work with those kinds of businesses is just really exciting for me. But beyond that, every day it seems like there is another business that is kind of the next best-kept secret, somebody here who is making something for somebody else. Every day there is somebody new, whether it’s manufacturing, technology, aviation, second-stage growth companies. Every day there is somebody new.
- What do you see as the community’s biggest strengths?
I think the biggest strength is a very healthy and mature business base. The core base of employers we have is a big strength for fueling other types of growth if we can effectively capitalize on that.
People we’ve talked to who were here like five years ago and they’ve come back are just amazed at what has happened. Developers want to develop in Oshkosh because Oshkosh is on the move. Oshkosh has momentum, and I think that is one of the big strengths.
- What are your greatest strengths?
My strengths are that I know how to build a good organization that’s focused on results, that is focused on the bottom line—what it takes to get a high return on investment for the dollars investors commit to this organization.
You’ve got to track and measure the work, and I think that’s something I’ve been effective at, too, tracking and measuring activity. But beyond that I also know it’s all about connecting and building relationships and being very, very active and engaged in the community.
- What are the biggest challenges that you perceive in the community?
The labor market is one of them. A lot of employers will tell us that, especially as the unemployment rate continues to shrink, there are fewer people, fewer candidates.
Our employers need more people within the applicant pool from which to consider, and that can only be done through either by bringing in more people into the Greater Oshkosh area or training or encouraging people to take on the skills of need within the local labor force.
A lot of that starts in the schools or in the homes for parents to continue to encourage kids to go into certain careers within the university system or the technical college, but labor force is an issue.
- How did you get into your line or work?
I was working in politics. Out of college, and even in college, I worked for political candidates and campaigns. I was not intending for that to be a career, but I was a political science major. So I worked for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in his 1998 campaign and ended up working for Elizabeth Dole’s presidential campaign, which was short-lived but still intense. And then I ended up in the Iowa legislature, worked in the Iowa Senate, worked in the Iowa House, did communications work, staffed committees.
I went to the University of Iowa because I wanted to get into a new line of work. I wanted to get into economic development, but I didn’t have the experience at that time. So I got my degree in urban planning with an economic development focus, and from there that’s where I got my start leading public-private economic development organizations.
- Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
When I was working in the city of Coralville, over in the Iowa City area, I got the chance when I was in grad school to be their redevelopment coordinator. They were redeveloping kind of a brownfield, old industrial park where they were trying to move out industry and build hotels and commerce and shopping and things of that nature.
The city administrator, Kelly Hayworth, was very aggressive at using all of the economic development tools at his disposal to grow Coralville, yet at the same time he had a very pleasant and even demeanor. Just a very nice guy, a very good guy to work with.
The expression “Speak softly and and carry a big stick,” I always thought, kind of fit him pretty well. Coralville was a fast-growing community on the rise, which certainly benefited from its location. But it also benefited from the attitude that he would bring, of being engaged, of being somebody people liked to work with and also being innovative in utilizing all of the tools at his disposal to grow the community, to bring in new growth.
- What has been your greatest achievement as an economic development executive?
The last place I worked was Warren County, which is much, much different from Oshkosh. Warren County is a bedroom county for Des Moines basically. So people don’t go to Warren County to work. It’s a county of 50,000 people, and I think there’s less than 10,000 people who work in the county.
A couple years ago they had 600 manufacturing jobs in the entire county. Last year we brought in projects that had almost $30 million in new capital investment and probably 300 to 400 jobs.
One employer, Loffredo Fresh Produce, added 200 jobs that were classified as manufacturing. So you look at it a couple of years ago we had 600 manufacturing jobs and we were not a destination for manufacturers. But then one employer added 200 jobs, basically adding 33 percent to the total manufacturing base.
- What will be the key measures of success for GO-EDC?
The organization has identified that it wants me, or the organization, to connect with 150 businesses every year, which is a kind of a pretty tall task.
We have a jobs goal and an investment goal, 1,000 jobs and $75 million in capital investment over the next three years.
- How soon will Oshkosh see a concrete indicator of success from GO-EDC?
That has already happened because we already have our first loan made from our revolving loan fund to Offbeat Press, which is the first applicant to receive funding.
We have a couple of projects that have applications in front of WEDC [Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.] right now that will be approved we believe very shortly.
We also have companies that don’t need financial capital, but they need space or they are trying to get through the regulatory process of the city or they have workforce issues. So there have been a lot of things that have been silent, or more quiet, that we have done to further projects already.
- Given some of the criticism that has been leveled at the state level about how economic development has been handled without following the law or internal policies, what will you do to ensure accountability and transparency at GO-EDC?
This organization, what really impressed me about it, was that it established some values right off the bat. One of them was accountability, and another was transparency. So those things are ingrained within me.
The folks who came before me set up some pretty specific guidelines. We can’t loan money to startups. They have to borrow at least $25,000. It can’t be for working capital, so there is some kind of security involved.
From a practical level one thing I’ve always tried to do is to offer as much information as I possibly can up to the line of jeopardizing the deal. I think I always been able to maintain the trust of the company involved, but at the same trying to be as open as I possibly can about sharing what is happening out there in the economic development environment.
We’ll have quarterly reporting, annual reporting. I have to make a quarterly presentation to the Common Council. I probably won’t mention names of companies to the council, but I will characterize our portfolio. Right now that that’s pretty easy because there’s one loan that’s been made. But we’ve got a couple loans that are pending.