Making connections to spark economic development

Jim Cleveland brings resources to Wisconsin’s small towns

Jim Cleveland knows what it takes to bring businesses to a community, and he knows how a project can win the financial backing it needs to succeed.

With years of experience in economic development and in the banking industry, Jim is bringing his expertise to WEDC as one of the two coordinators of Thrive Rural Wisconsin, a new program launched by the Office of Rural Prosperity.

Image of Jim Cleveland watching a moose at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Jim watching a moose at Rocky Mountain National Park

Thrive Rural Wisconsin has chosen 10 small communities around the state to bring their major projects to life with the help of planning grants of up to $25,000 a year for the next two years and technical assistance from WEDC. Some of the plans involve building housing in Peshtigo and Bonduel, establishing a business incubator in the Hayward area, and adding solar generation in Vernon County.

More than 30 applications were submitted from all over Wisconsin. Along with David Fleming, WEDC’s other rural development specialist, Jim is working with the 10 community groups whose projects were selected. Jim’s assigned territory stretches from southwest Wisconsin to Vilas County and east to Kewaunee County.

“It is a fun time for me to get out and meet people,” Jim says. “We put together toolkits that can help them and best practices to share. We’ve been meeting with community leaders, doing assessments, and putting together work plans.”

From broadcasting to banking

Jim was born in Fond du Lac and spent most of his youth there. But it was the six years of his childhood in Belvidere, Illinois, that etched some of his favorite memories. His family lived in a house on a dead-end street that backed up to a horse pasture, woods, and a field just beyond. Boys in the neighborhood would gather every day, playing baseball and football and creating their own fun.

“We would play in the dirt and in the woods. I have memories of digging a hole and building a ramp made of old plywood and jumping our bikes across it,” he says.

In high school in Fond du Lac, Jim played basketball and aspired to be on the Marquette University Warriors basketball team (now called the Golden Eagles)—winners of the NCAA National Championship in 1977. When the time for college came, though, he attended UW-Oshkosh and earned a bachelor’s degree in radio, TV, and film with a minor in business. He sold sponsorships for the campus radio station and tried his hand at disc jockeying. “It was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. It’s amazing how fast three minutes and thirty seconds can go by when you’re trying to figure out the next record to play.”

But “happenstance” lured him onto a different career track: banking. “Radio was my passion but as a newlywed, there was not a lot of money in it.”

Jim spent the first half of his career holding a variety of jobs in the financial industry, as a commercial credit analyst and lender, an investment banking officer, a customer service manager, and a bank branch manager.

Image of Jim Cleveland and his wife Michele.

Jim Cleveland and his wife, Michele

“I was serving as ambassador for our bank at our local chamber of commerce. I heard about an opening to work with high school kids in workforce development, and I got the job.” That led to the second portion of Jim’s career: economic development. Positions in Fond du Lac’s economic development organization and its chamber of commerce—which later merged—gave Jim experience in dealing with financing packages to attract and retain businesses. Most recently, Jim served as a project manager for a local steel fabrication company. Then the job opened at WEDC and Jim jumped at the opportunity.

“I missed being in the development world,” he says.

Thrive Rural has shown that while each community has its own set of needs and challenges, many of the issues are very similar: shortages of funding, available workforce, and adequate housing. Often, community leaders are not aware of all of the opportunities available through agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture or through regional planning commissions, Jim says.

“WEDC has a collection of individuals with many different strengths, working for businesses and communities. There’s a whole network that communities can tap into. I think what WEDC and I can do is to be a convener and connector for communities to get to the right resources to accomplish their goals.”

Jim says the best part of his job is forming relationships. “I’m a people person. I love helping people, making deals happen, and getting to know the individuals I work with. The overall sense of trying to help in any way I can—that’s where I find my happiness.”

Getting to know Jim Cleveland behind the scenes

Image of Jim Cleveland's family at Breckenridge ski resort.

Jim’s family enjoying a get away in Breckenridge, Colorado

Family: Married for 35 years to his wife, Michele; three grown children and two grandchildren

Dogs or cats? Dogs. Past pets were Louie, a St. Bernard, and Albert, a Leonberger dog (another giant breed). “At one time, we had 300-plus pounds of dog living with us.”

Hobbies: Cooking—spending Sunday afternoons in the kitchen making pizza, with the dough and sauce made from scratch, or baking his “Dadalicious” chocolate chip cookies; yard work—cutting grass or chopping trees; and hiking. “We have a cabin in northern Wisconsin where we hike and fish.”

Favorite foods: “A great hamburger is really tops for me.”

Recreation: Boating on Lake Winnebago and playing basketball have been family traditions. Jim played basketball in high school and his children did, too; he coached one of them in a travel league for six years.

Favorite bands: In high school, cassette tapes of Foreigner’s “4,” Journey’s “Escape,” and AC/DC’s “Back in Black” would blast from the boom box. Today, Jim listens to a variety of music, ranging from the Beatles to the Rat Pack. “I love the whole Las Vegas sound of the 1960’s and hearing Frank Sinatra sing. I’ve started to reestablish my vinyl collection—it’s the best way to listen to music.”

Favorite weekend: “Spending time with all my kids at home. We try to have one long weekend together up at our cabin. That’s about as perfect as it gets for me—being disconnected (from technology), sharing laughs, cooking over an open fire, and being with each other.”

How weird are you? “Extremely weird. I’m 58 years old and I’ve never really grown up. I still get together with three friends from high school and we play around on the lake and talk about nonsensical stuff. I don’t take life too seriously—life is too short.”

Related Stories

  • People growing agriculture at small farm. Person using tablet technology at community farm


    New UW Extension Program to support innovation in the rural economy

    The Rural Wisconsin Entrepreneurship Initiative aims to equip rural entrepreneurs with business development assistance and access to financing, as well as developing Wisconsin’s rural entrepreneurial ecosystems.

  • Workers examining tomatoes on conveyor belt in food processing plant


    Wisconsin Resilient Food Systems Infrastructure (RFSI) Program

    Grants are available to support expanding food processing and distribution capacity, with applications due in early March.

  • Jeff Glazer on mountain summit.


    Bringing legal services to rural Wisconsin

    Jeff is a clinical professor at the UW-Madison Law School and supervising attorney with the law school’s Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic. For the past several years, his focus has been on the rural economy.