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Pierce County EDC honors three longtime businesses

Representatives from the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery receive the Ag Champion award from Pierce County Economic Development Corporation Director Paul Schwebach, center. Pictured are CEO/manager Paul Bauer (right) and on Plant Superintendent Joe Hines. (Herald photo by Chad Richardson)1 / 5
Ptacek's IGA store manager Patrick Ptacek, left, receives the Large Business of the Year award from Pierce County Economic Development Corporation Director Paul Schwebach. (Herald photo by Chad Richardson)2 / 5
Pierce County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Paul Schwebach presents Kristen McMaster with the Small Business of the Year award. McMaster and her husband own and operate Crystal Cave in Spring Valley. (Herald photo by Chad Richardson)3 / 5
Pierce County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Paul Schwebach delivers a speech during the EDC's annual meeting on Tuesday in River Falls. (Herald photo by Chad Richardson)4 / 5
Danielle Campeau, the director for the Center for Innovation and Business Development at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, addresses the crowd at the Pierce County Economic Development Corporation annual meeting and awards banquet Tuesday, Jan. 24 at UW-River Falls. (Herald photo by Chad Richardson)5 / 5

RIVER FALLS -- All kinds of encouraging news regarding the local business economy was presented Tuesday night to attendees at the annual meeting of the Pierce County Economic Development Corporation.

Businesses in the county, for example, had a net increase of 280 jobs in 2015. That number could easily jump in 2017 if the St. Croix Valley business incubator can open in September as is hoped.

Other good news? According to data from, sales/revenue at Pierce County businesses totalled $3 billion 2015, an increase of $1 billion from 2010.

This information was part of a presentation given to attendees by Danielle Campeau from the Center for Innovation and Business Development at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

Following her presentation, three longtime area businesses were honored.

Crystal Cave in Spring Valley was named the EDC’s Small Business of the Year. Ptacek’s IGA in Prescott earned Large Business of the Year honors and the Ag Champion honors went to the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery.

Economic development

Campeau shared with attendees information about the work she does with the CIBD. They aim to accelerate innovation, build economic and development partnerships, work on getting that business incubator running and they operate a small business development center.

They’ve had success recently with UWRF students when it comes to innovation. One student, Michael Mader, rolled out a line of socks called Hippy Feet. For every pair purchased, Mader donates a pair to someone in need. That idea earned him a first-place award in the Wisconsin Big Idea Tournament in 2016.

The incubator, meanwhile, will be located in the new business and industrial park on the north side of River Falls.

“We hope that it will open this fall,” Campeau said.

The incubator will offer office and manufacturing space for lease, collaborative workspaces, access to conference rooms, training and professional development, customized coaching and mentoring, capital infusion, networking and access to research collaboration, Campeau said.

The center is a real collaboration with funding coming from four significant sources. A $1.4 million grant was earned from the United States Economic Development Administration. Another $1.15 million in local financing was provided by the River Falls Economic Development Corporation. The City of River Falls donated the land and a $250,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation helped out as well. Partners include the City of River Falls, the River Falls Economic Development Corporation, UW-River Falls, Chippewa Valley Technical College and the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

The small business development center presentation was led by Katherine Fossler, a business consultant in the Small Business Development Center. Among the features she highlighted was an entrepreneurial training program that is available now for $250 -- a $750 discount thanks to a grant. It meets at the Hudson Center and the 10-week program begins March 20.

Following their presentation, Pierce County Economic Development Corporation executive director Paul Schwebach handed out the annual awards.

The creamery

Schwebach praised the creamery’s commitment to agriculture and the community. That commitment goes back to 1910 when the business formed to sell eggs and manufacture butter.

In the mid-1990s, they expanded into cheesemaking and, later, commercial cheese curds. They now make about 180,000 pounds of all-natural cheddar cheese curds every day.

“Through their marketing efforts their two retail stores have become daytrip destinations, attracting thousands of tourists annually, drawing 75 percent of their traffic from outside of the area, specifically the Twin Cities,” Schwebach said. “And, while domestic sales continue to grow, Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery sees a bright future in exports, particularly in China. The export of sweet whey powder sales to China have increased from zero to 40 percent in recent years ... .”

Ptacek’s IGA

For more than 105 years, Ptacek’s IGA has served the grocery needs of residents in Prescott and Pierce County.

“What started as a one-aisle grocery store in historic downtown Prescott, Ptacek’s has grown to a one stop shop for all your grocery needs,” Schwebach said. “In 2015 they built a new grocery store located at the corner of Highway 10 and Highway 29 in Prescott to accommodate the demands of their customers. The new building brought many new opportunities for Ptacek’s to interact with the community. They built a Caribou Coffee, a gas station with rewards for grocery shopping, expanded deli seating, expanded organics in fresh and frozen, expanded fresh fish and homegrown meats, the largest liquor department in Pierce County, and even a park that features a splash pad and zip line.”

Schwebach then quoted Mike Ptacek as saying: “Times may change, but no one will ever say ‘that service was too good’ or ‘that quality is too high.’”

Crystal Cave

Crystal Cave was discovered in 1881 by two Spring Valley farm boys, William and George Vanasse. In 1942, Henry and Mary Friede purchased the property. They installed lighting and pathways and built a visitor center over the cave entrance.

Eric and Kristen McMaster, the current owners, purchased Crystal Cave in 2012. Both are active cavers.

“Eric and Kristen met at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennesse, and one of their first dates was caving,” Schwebach said.

Crystal Cave is a seasonal business, open April 1 through Oct. 31. During the summer they have about 26 employees.

Looking forward, Crystal Cave is planning on continuing to provide high quality educational tours and also incorporate additional attractions with the goal of not only continuing to grow visitor attendance to the cave but also bring more tourists to Pierce County.

Kristen McMaster was present at the dinner and accepted the award from Schwebach.