Attracting new businesses and industries to DeForest will certainly grab headlines. Michelle Lawrie knows that.
As the village’s new community development director, she also wants to look out for the ones that are already here.
“Everybody gets excited about new businesses, but helping current businesses flourish is what really makes a community thrive,” said Lawrie.
Lawrie officially started work as DeForest’s new community development director on April 1. She brings more than 20 years of economic development experience to the job, having most recently served as director of economic development for the City of Goodyear, Arizona, a suburb of her native Phoenix, between January 2015 and December 2017.
Lawrie sees a lot of similarities between Goodyear and DeForest. Both are growing suburbs of larger metropolitan areas. Goodyear’s population has exploded, going from 18,000 in the year 2000 to more than 80,000 today.
DeForest’s situation is a little different.
“One of the things that’s great about Wisconsin, as opposed to Arizona, is that if you grew up here, you usually stay here,” said Lawrie. “Arizona is more transient. So, the people here are committed to the area and invested in their communities.”
Lawrie moved to Wisconsin with her husband in 2018. They met while he was working for Sub-Zero on a plant expansion in Arizona, and he asked if she wanted to go back to Wisconsin with him.
Upon arrival, Lawrie spent a lot of time getting to know the local business community and the area economic development organizations. She said she was lucky to find this opportunity in DeForest, adding the community is in a great position to capitalize on the growth that has already occurred in the village and keep the momentum going. The proximity to Madison is an advantage.
“It’s so close to Madison, but it’s different,” said Lawrie. “It’s a place where you can get away from that. A lot of businesses want to be downtown, near the capitol. But you can get away from that here.”
Lawrie said she is impressed by how interested local business owners in DeForest are in seeing how the community grows. She’s hoping to help develop the area in the way the community wants. Local business people like Dale Evans, president of Evco Plastics, have clued her in to the rich history of DeForest, she said.
Economic development wasn’t top of mind for Lawrie in college. At Northern Arizona University, she majored in political science and took up an internship in Washington, D.C., working for Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl working on legislation and lobbying. While there, she got involved with think tanks on the economy, and that sparked an interest in economic development. She’s been in the field since 1997.
In assessing business climate in the DeForest area, Lawrie has noticed the village has several advantages, including available acres and tax incremental financing availability for commercial and manufacturing, which allows for diversification. The workforce is another asset, although Lawrie would like to stem some of the “brain drain” from DeForest to Madison and keep more of the local workforce employed in DeForest.
At the same time, Lawrie wants to build DeForest’s brand and spread the word about the community and how accessible it is for businesses.
“It’s a challenge just getting a community’s name out there,” said Lawrie.
Updating the web site is a first step for Lawrie in getting out the message that DeForest is a good place to do business. “That’s going to help attract new business,” said Lawrie.
Redeveloping the downtown area and adding amenities that residents can either walk to or get to easily are also priorities.
“We have the foundation to grow in ways the community wants,” said Lawrie.
Lawrie said the village’s housing growth is wonderful and so is the enthusiasm around the new Fleet Farm, which she said presents a huge opportunity for ancillary businesses. Tax incremental financing can offer more opportunities, as will enhancing space around the village’s new athletic complex. Lawrie is excited about the possibilities.
“It’s amazing what DeForest has already done with community development,” said Lawrie. “I’m hoping to build on that. The staff here and the village board … I’ve been so impressed with everyone, and they’ve been here so long that they’ve invested in their careers.”
Lawrie is hoping to play a major role in the development and growth of DeForest.
“Being in a leadership role, with a great team and residents facilitating growth,” said Lawrie, “I want to see what happens. Economic development is my passion.”