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Fond du Lac County’s Economic Recovery from COVID-19

Now that a vaccine was approved by the FDA and healthcare workers in Fond du Lac County have began their vaccinations, the county and nation are looking towards the future and economic recovery from the COVID-19 virus. Since March, economists, legislators and journalists have done their best to determine how well our nation and local economies will recover.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve spoken with dozens of businesses in Fond du Lac County, viewed numerous economic projections, reviewed tens of survey reports (local, state, and national), and read hundreds of news articles. My opinion on our local economic recovery has remained relatively unchanged since the early days of the pandemic.

Employment: In April 2020, Fond du Lac County initially saw a sharp decrease in economic activity, followed by a slow but steady upswing. For instance, Fond du Lac County peaked at 15% unemployment that month, before declining back to an unemployment rate of 3.7% in October 2020, which is equal to the unemployment rate in January 2020. As a comparison, the state of Wisconsin reported an unemployment rate of 5.2% in October 2020 (not seasonally adjusted). One thing to be wary of is that this decrease can be related to two things: individuals finding work and no longer needing unemployment benefits or individuals using up their state unemployment benefits and no longer qualifying. Aside from the unemployment rate, Fond du Lac county actually increased its labor force 0.96% since October 2018.

Local Industries: Fond du Lac County was in a unique position throughout the pandemic and likely survived, in part, based on our large industry clusters in manufacturing and healthcare. In other industries, quick ingenuity allowed business to stay afloat during the early lockdowns and throughout the past nine months (for instance, Ledgerock Distillery transitioned to producing hand sanitizer). Many manufacturers reported that, despite interruptions in their supply chain or workforce shortages due to COVID-19 outbreaks, they were sitting equal or actually projected growth through 2020 compared to last year (via Envision Greater Fond du Lac COVID-19 Business Survey). In a year where many businesses unfortunately were forced to close permanently, few Fond du Lac businesses were forced to do so. In fact, during virtual business visits our office held with local companies, several reported expansion plans for 2021-2022 due to significant growth. Many of these same companies report that, at this time, they are experiencing difficulty filling their vacant positions.

In the US Census Small Business Pulse Survey, which has collected data throughout the pandemic, December data shows that fewer Wisconsin businesses have seen a large negative effect compared to other states across the country. Some of our local industry clusters (manufacturing, construction, healthcare, retail trade, and real estate) were below the national average. It will take time to recover from COVID-19; but with local businesses looking towards the future, Fond du Lac County is poised to see more significant economic growth in the second half of 2021.

Federal and Local Aid: More than $1.4 million in COVID-19 relief aid was invested in businesses throughout Fond du Lac County. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) dispersed 369 We’re All In Small Business Grants in Phase One of the grant, totaling $922,500. Local grants administered by Envision Greater Fond  du Lac included  $150,000 from the City of Fond du Lac’s Community Development Block Grant program; $280,000 from Fond du Lac County’s Coronavirus Micro Loan program; and $64,512.02 from the Waupun Community Development Authority COVID-19 Downtown Business Support Program. Envision Greater Fond du Lac created and implemented our Dine Local Golden Ticket Giveaway to infuse money into the local restaurant economy, resulting in $31,000+ benefiting 62 member organizations. Over 1,104 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Loans less than $150,000 were administered to businesses contained within Fond du Lac County zip-codes.

Predictions: Except a slow recovery in early 2021, followed by an economic surge in the second half of the year, in part due to rapid public vaccination during that time frame. The housing market will likely remain hot for a few years, likely into 2023 as we’ve seen throughout 2020 due to record-low mortgage rates. A few trends from 2020 will likely remain, including remote work and increases in online shopping and store pick-up. Tourism, accommodation, and food service industries will have the greatest uphill battle and will see the slowest recovery. Continued financial relief at the federal and state level is necessary for several of these businesses to survive. Monthly job postings in Fond du Lac County are the highest they’ve been since September 2019 indicating employers are focused on future growth and expansion, and feel comfortable bringing on new employees at this time. With hesitant optimism I look towards 2021 as a year of growth, expansion and recovery following the COVID-19 recession.