Rural Town Revamps Economy with Food Jobs: The Viroqua Story

From by Patty Cantrell
Rural Town Revamps Economy with Food Jobs: The Viroqua Story

Next to Wal-Mart on the edge of rural Viroqua, Wisconsin, a 100,000-square-foot abandoned industrial building is now bustling with new businesses and jobs from an unconventional source: The local food and farming sector.

It’s a turnaround for a small town that lost one of its largest employers and then bet on the growth of local food markets to enliven that vacant space and the area’s economy.

The Food Enterprise Center in Viroqua is also one of an increasing number of food and farm business development centers that are ratcheting up the economic development assistance.

Economic Engine

For Viroqua and southwest Wisconsin, the growing businesses at the Food Enterprise Center are a significant boost both for that abandoned industrial real estate and the regional economy, said Matt Johnson. He is editor of the Vernon County Broadcaster and a charter member of the Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA).

“This was a very large facility that was going to sit empty for a really long time,” Johnson said. “It was great that our local economic development association saw (redeveloping) it in a different way,” he said. “One of the things we do really well here in Vernon County is food. We have the highest concentration of organic farmers in the state.”

VEDA director Sue Noble said she knew from a survey of area food and farm businesses at the time, and from “what came across my desk,” that businesses in the emerging sector were looking to grow but had no place to do it.

“The size of this building, with five loading docks, matched their need for mid-tier level facilities; that infrastructure was missing,” she said.

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