Wisconsin’s First Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities Conference

Between May 30-31, over two hundred rural economic developers, community leaders, and entrepreneurs descended upon Platteville, WI, a small town in southwestern Wisconsin, population of 11,840, for Wisconsin’s first Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities (CEC) Conference. Known as a conference “about small towns, for small towns,” the CEC conference offers programming, discussion, and networking for stakeholders in Wisconsin’s rural business development. Other Midwestern states such as Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Nebraska hold the CEC Conference on an annual basis as part of their rural economic development strategy. Last year the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation awarded Extension a grant to bring the CEC Conference to Wisconsin as well.

For Wisconsin’s first conference, Extension invited four rural communities in Wisconsin to apply to host the event. To qualify to host the conference, communities needed to have a population below 15,000, a vibrant small business ecosystem, proximate hotel space to accommodate 200+ conference attendees, and community members willing to do extensive preparations for the conference. A statewide steering committee comprised of members from Extension, Office of Rural Prosperity, Institute for Business and Entrepreneurship, and Wisconsin Community Action Program selected Platteville as the 2024 host, impressed by the enthusiasm of its team, the number of local organizations willing to contribute to the conference, and its location in an area of the state with great economic development potential, the Driftless Region.

Kate Koziol, Economic Development Specialist with the Southwestern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and Executive Director of the Platteville Business Incubator, led Platteville’s bid for the CEC Conference and served as a main organizer for the event. “We have a thriving entrepreneurial community and support network in southwest Wisconsin and we wanted to host a forum to share what we have developed as well as learn from entrepreneurial leaders from across the State,” said Koziol. Michael Walsh, Executive Director of Platteville Main Street, also led conference planning, as well as representatives from the City of Platteville, the Platteville Regional Chamber, University of Wisconsin-Platteville, the Wisconsin Latino Chamber of Commerce, Platteville Area Industrial Development Corporation, and the Southwest Wisconsin Small Business Development Center.

Conference proceedings kicked off in Platteville’s City Hall Auditorium the morning of May 30, with an official welcome from Barb Daus, Platteville Council President, a presentation about the Driftless Region by Cory Ritterbush, local historian and conservationist, and a review of data and research about trends in the rural Wisconsin economy by Matt Kures, community economic development specialist at Extension. Missy Hughes, CEO of Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and Tripp Hughes, Senior Director of Consumer Strategy for Organic Valley, delivered keynote speeches before conference attendees were dismissed, filing out of the auditorium to the tune of “On Wisconsin.”

CEC Conference programming was held all over Platteville’s downtown, encouraging conference attendees to explore the town and its local business scene. Sixteen different sessions were hosted in Avalon Cinema, Rountree Gallery, the Platteville Public Library, as well as the Platteville Municipal Auditorium. The sessions were organized into four different tracks, covering topics important to Wisconsin’s rural business sector and stories of the Driftless Region’s economic development. Over 60 speakers from dozens of organizations led sessions in the four tracks: “Entrepreneurship and Economic Development,” “Resources for Small Businesses,” “Community Belonging Through Entrepreneurship,” and “Innovations in Agri-Food Business.” The full conference agenda can be viewed here.

Graced with beautiful spring weather, conference attendees strolled up and down Main Street between sessions and continued conversations in Platteville’s City Park. Six different local eateries helped cater the conference, including Los Amigos, Driftless Market, Downtown BBQ, Seven Hills North, Beastro Se7en, and Badger Brothers Coffee. Platteville’s Mining and Rollo Jamison Museums hosted an evening reception, where conference attendees could tour an old galina mine below ground.

The event concluded back in City Hall Auditorium, with remarks from Dr. Tammy Evetovich, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, an idea-sharing activity for attendees, and an announcement of the winner of the conference scavenger hunt, who won a “Year of Milk” from Organic Valley.

“The conference gave us the opportunity to showcase the region, including creating tour books and maps, and develop further as a team to host the biggest, multi-day business event ever held in downtown Platteville.,” said Kate Koziol. Downloadable copies of the “Driftless Getaway Guide and Map” are available here.

Planning for the 2025 conference will begin this fall. Communities which are interested in hosting can contact Maggie Cornelius, Outreach Specialist for the Rural Wisconsin Entrepreneurship Initiative, at mmcornelius@wisc.edu.

The CEC Conference is an activity of the Rural Wisconsin Entrepreneurship Initiative, a new program at Extension which provides education, training, research, and technical assistance to support entrepreneurial ecosystem development in rural Wisconsin.

Funding Statement

This project is being supported, in whole or in part, by federal award number SLFRP0135 awarded to the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System on behalf of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension via the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the Wisconsin Department of Administration.
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