Coming Home | Waukesha Co. Business News

WAUKESHA — Nicole Ryf, the new executive director of the Waukesha County Center for Growth, grew up and began her career in southeastern Wisconsin but took vacations to Texas. Eventually she found her way back home with her new role.

“I always knew I wanted to return home,” Ryf said. “I knew it would feel better doing economic development up here. It would be more fulfilling to do it at home.”

Ryf went to Texas without a job, which she found “scary” considering she occasionally defines herself through her career, she said. Shortly after arriving in Austin, she started as a project manager in the governor’s office, but her ambition allowed her to climb the ranks.

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She has received five promotions to become director of business and community development, she said, where she has enjoyed helping companies move their headquarters to Texas.

Ryf said her pet project was bringing the Professional Golfers of America to Frisco, Texas, which brought hundreds of jobs to the area.

“It was more than just the office space, it was more of a campus with locations that benefit the area,” Ryf said.

According to Ryf, these sites include several golf courses to boost the region’s tourism industry.

workers housing

Ryf started at the county center six weeks ago and said her priority is to identify and speak to key stakeholders, including local business owners, elected officials and government workers.

“The number one issue that comes up is labor housing,” Ryf said. “We have a lot of great manufacturing and healthcare companies. But there just isn’t enough housing in the area for the workers.”

Ryf said these workers are often middle class and cannot afford Waukesha’s larger lots. She said bringing smaller residential lots to Waukesha could help allay those concerns and help companies with employee retention.

“There aren’t many smaller properties that people can afford in this area,” Ryf said.

Ryf said the center is also addressing the issue through its Generating Resources and Opportunity in Waukesha County Fund (GROW), a $2 million economic development fund dedicated to finding innovative housing and business expansion solutions in the county. The fund works with the Milwaukee Economic Development Corporation.

“If there’s a developer who needs financial help on these projects to create apartments with smaller lots that address this issue, we can probably help them,” Ryf said.

Higher rental costs have plagued not just the Waukesha and Oconomowoc areas, but the entire country, Ryf said. She said creating housing developments with more units would reduce per-unit construction costs and rent.

Ryf said the center is a 501C3 non-profit organization, so it cannot engage with local government to support these developments, but can educate local government staff on the benefits of these projects.

Despite larger lot sizes supporting Waukesha’s business development, it has also helped drive these high housing costs, Ryf said.

“A lot of that is related to the development of Waukesha,” Ryf said. “It was a suburb of Milwaukee but had more land available and is business friendly, which, given our larger lots, led to a lot of manufacturing being added.”

Ryf said this has only increased since she left Wisconsin for Texas years ago and was evident when she returned.

“Something I’ve noticed since I’ve been away is that a lot of people have been driving into Milwaukee during rush hour,” Ryf said. “Now it’s pretty much the same either way.”

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