Bathtubs, smokestacks and a five-star resort: lessons from Kohler, Wisconsin | Don Brunell

Today, there is a tendency to look with distain at manufacturing facilities, especially those located on working waterfronts. Historically, those factories were sited there because the raw materials and finished products could be transported only by water.

Today, there is a tendency to look with distain at manufacturing facilities, especially those located on working waterfronts.  Historically, those factories were sited there because the raw materials and finished products could be transported only by water.

But as our state and nation progressed, railroads, highways and even airports were added and industrial areas formed.  In fact, our legislature, cities, counties and ports funded the necessary improvements to those areas to specifically attract industries and the accompanying family-wage jobs.

Past governors made economic development the cornerstone of their administrations. For example, Booth Gardner formed “Team Washington” and successfully recruited high tech industries to southwest Washington.  Otherwise, those facilities would have landed in Oregon.

However, today many urban dwellers, particularly those who buy condos along the waterfront, tend to look at industrial facilities as obstructions to “their” views and annoyances to their lifestyles.  For example, one California transplant told me the Georgia Pacific pulp and paper mill was an “eyesore” and should be demolished.

That mill was built in 1883 and Camas grew up around it.  It is on the banks of the Columbia and Washougal rivers and, unknown to him, it is one of the most efficient producers of bathroom and facial tissue, paper towel and napkins – all products that don’t have online or digital substitutes.

When plants close and are demolished, as was the case of the old Boise Cascade paper mill located in the heart of the Port of Vancouver working waterfront, developers swoop in with their billion dollar plans to build high-end condos and office-retail complexes.

There is nothing wrong with that as long as the condo buyers fully understand their neighbors are industries.   The railroad, for example, is integral to the Port’s operation and to the region’s transportation network and it runs around the clock transporting all kinds of products that we need and use daily.

There are hundreds of examples where industries and neighborhoods coexist successfully every day.  For proof, just visit Kohler, Wisconsin, where the Sheboygan River runs into Lake Michigan. It is a village founded as a model company town in 1900 when the Kohler Company built its new plant.

Kohler is no Microsoft.  By today’s standards it is classified as part of the “Old Economy.”  The company manufactures kitchen and bathroom sinks, bathtubs, toilets, shower stalls and faucets much the same was as it has for decades.  Hot furnaces turn steel into molten metal for molds, bake enamel onto it, and also harden porcelain.

Yet the air and water are clean, children attend school a stone’s throw away, and workers and play in the parks and on ball fields.

The neighborhood around Kohler’s headquarters and the massive industrial complex includes a five-star resort, complete with championship golf courses, an upscale shopping mall, theater, a wildlife refuge, and some of Wisconsin’s finest homes.

The resort is “The American Club” which was originally built to house immigrant workers.  It was a place where they learned the English language and studied to become citizens.  In fact, because the neighborhood is a bit pricey, many Kohler employees live in nearby Sheboygan which is on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The point is industries and cites coexist very well along the water’s edge.

So, you folks who turn up your noses at the ideas of sharing the waterfront with manufacturing facilities—and the jobs and necessary products they provide—take note:  Kohler, Wisconsin is an example of how an industrial site can exist in harmony with any neighborhood, regardless of one’s income level or station in life.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at

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