Chamber honors 4 after record-setting 2018 in Portage

February 4, 2019
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Portage Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marianne Hanson issues the Business Excellence Award for businesses with 20 or more employees to Joe Sommers of Rhyme during an awards ceremony Friday at Dino's Restaurant.

Portage Area Chamber of Commerce recognized four businesses for recent success Friday and pointed to a record-setting 2018 for anyone who might need a dose of confidence about their hometown.

The chamber held 30 ribbon-cuttings for local businesses in 2018 — the most ever during Executive Director Marianne Hanson’s 16 years with the organization, she said. Each year, the chamber holds ribbon-cuttings for new businesses, expanding businesses and businesses that moved to new locations. About 20 ribbon-cuttings were held in 2017, which Hanson said is more of the norm.

“More people are moving to Portage because they understand it’s a great place to live and do business,” Hanson said before she presented the chamber awards to local businesses during its annual ceremony at Dino’s Restaurant. “We’ve seen a lot of growth and we’re seeing fewer empty storefronts in the past five years.”

Only about five storefronts in downtown Portage remain empty, Hanson said, down from about 20 vacant storefronts when she started working at the chamber.

“We’re seeing so many businesses invest in their buildings — both inside their buildings and outside — and they’re adding staff, new products and services,” Hanson said. “That’s why we hold these awards: It’s our opportunity to say ‘thank you’ for making the investments that improve our community.”

Rhyme received the chamber’s Business Excellence Award for businesses with 20 or more employees after reaching $20 million in annual revenues and adding 13 jobs in 2018. The office equipment, supplies and information technology services provider has six locations in Wisconsin, but its headquarters remain on Highway 51 in Portage. Its roots in Portage date back to “Rhyme Drug” in 1886.

Portage Furniture Store received the Business Excellence Award for businesses with fewer than 20 employees after updating its windows, adding a new roof and painting its façade. The downtown operation is co-owned by brothers Austin and Aaron Ayers, who took on managerial responsibilities in 2016. Their father, Gerry Ayers, established the store in 1989.

Neil’s Wine House received the Rising Star award after it opened on West Pleasant Street in the fall of 2017. Its owner, Neil Shortreed, has since invested in a brand-new patio area that includes outdoor heaters for patrons who sit outside and the business frequently offers live music and other activities throughout the year, Hanson said.

Jack’s Tap received the Community Service Award for holding monthly meat raffles in which the proceeds have been donated to organizations including The Portage Area Caring Tree, Women’s Civic League and Sleep in Heavenly Peace. Jack’s Tap is operated by Jackie McGowan and Tara Glendenning and opened on Dunn Street in 2016.

WEDC: Perception of state improving

The Chamber’s featured speaker — Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s vice president of marketing, Kelly Lietz — told attendees Friday that the No. 1 challenge for Wisconsin businesses is finding people to work.

More than a year ago, WEDC surveyed non-Wisconsin millennials — people who grew to young adults in the early 21st century — and found that the perception of Wisconsin amounted to cheese, beer, the Green Bay Packers football team and cold winters, Lietz said.

“We obviously needed to expand beyond that,” said Lietz, whose organization eventually spent $1 million to promote the state of Wisconsin to millennials in Chicago, leaning on the state’s outdoor recreation opportunities, favorable work commutes and more.

Post-survey data shows the perception of Wisconsin among Chicago millennials is improving overall, including by about 5 percent among those who would consider moving to Wisconsin, Lietz said. WEDC is spending another $6.8 million to promote the state in 13 Midwest metro areas. In addition to millennials, WEDC is marketing the benefits of Wisconsin to Wisconsin alumni and transitioning veterans.

“People don’t often know much about us,” Lietz said, “but when they do, they want to be here.”

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