Marathon County business grows from local roots

January 6, 2014

Scott Dombeck, owner of Dombeck Custom Cabinets, LLC, inspects renovations in the former school building that will serve as the new home for his business.

Scott Dombeck, owner of Dombeck Custom Cabinets, LLC, inspects renovations in the former school building that will serve as the new home for his business.

Village of Elderon, UW-Extension and USDA cooperate to help a small business and boost community pride 

Contact Mary Kluz, 715-261-1241, mary.kluz@ces.uwex.edu

Scott Dombeck has deep roots in the Village of Elderon. A Wisconsin native, the craftsman and cabinet maker operated a small business on his family’s rural property, with sales driven primarily by word-of-mouth referrals and a website.

Business was steady, but Dombeck had always dreamed of expanding. In early 2013, an unexpected opportunity presented itself when a nearby Wausau cabinetry shop was sold to new owners. Within a year, the business had closed its doors, allowing Dombeck to purchase used equipment at a reasonable cost.

With the needed equipment in hand, Dombeck next wanted to find more space for his shop to accommodate a showroom. Having a spot for people to view samples of finished custom cabinetry would enhance the customer experience.

A friend told Dombeck that the Village of Elderon was seeking a new use for its shuttered 1960s-era elementary school—a building Dombeck knew well. He and his siblings had attended the school from kindergarten through fourth grade. Did the old Elderon Elementary School hold the potential to serve as a new home to his business?

Dombeck broached the idea of converting the school to a workshop and showroom with Elderon Village Board member Rob Wyman. “Scott and I were discussing business and his future expansion plans, when the idea of utilizing the former Elderon Elementary School building was brought up,” says Wyman. “The Village had winterized the property, and was basically listening and looking for possible opportunities to get the facility back into a useful life.”

Wyman agreed Dombeck’s plan held promise. The idea was discussed by the Elderon Village Board members who gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

With the Board’s approval, Dombeck conducted a walk-through of the property to decide if it would meet his needs. “The layout was all on one level and the building had a nice flow. It was a feasible layout for the business,” he says.

But while the layout was promising, a daunting amount of work would be needed to get the old building in shape. The heating, cooling and electrical systems required upgrades and the building’s flat roof was in a state of disrepair. In addition, the building needed a loading dock.

“The biggest challenge wasn’t in identifying the structural improvements that needed to be made, but in finding a way to fund the necessary upgrades,” says Wyman. “That’s where Mary Kluz of the University of Wisconsin-Extension, and Mike Daniels and Jeff Hudson at the USDA came into play.”

Village President James Schwalbach contacted Kluz to talk with her about the proposal for rehabbing the school. The Village had previously considered other options, such as elderly housing, that had run into roadblocks. “We’ve got a good one this time,” Schwalbach told Kluz.

Kluz began researching funding options to help the Village move forward. One program that looked like a good fit was the USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant program (http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/BCP_rbeg.html) with its goal of “…financing and facilitating development of small and emerging businesses in rural areas,” including “construction, conversion, enlargement, repairs or modernization of buildings…”

With the information provided by Kluz, and with assistance from Daniels and Hudson of the USDA, the Village applied for, and was awarded, a USDA Rural Business Enterprise grant in the summer of 2013.

“The grant was the key financial piece to make the Dombeck plan a reality,” says Wyman. “No matter what type of project a community is thinking about, there’s a good chance that assistance is available. Having access to the right information is vital.”

“UW-Extension is a great resource for finding out about the programs available to Wisconsin communities,” Wyman says. “This project is a prime example of what can be accomplished when a municipality, UW-Extension and the USDA work together for a common goal.”

As 2014 begins, construction work on the old school is nearing completion and a ribbon-cutting and grand opening celebration is slated for the spring.

Business is looking up for Dombeck’s Custom Cabinets. “We’re having a record year,” Dombeck reports. The company now employs people from Marathon, Langlade, Portage and Shawano counties and has added three employees since July. Dombeck plans to expand his staff as his business grows.

“Converting the Elderon school to a new use has been a wonderful project for our community in many ways,” says Wyman. “We’ve helped a local small business grow into a new facility, create jobs for the local economy and upgraded a facility that Village residents can be proud of.”

Village officials see the potential for more expansion, noting that the school property is equipped with fiber optic cable and has room for additional buildings. Travel to the area is easier now, too, due to the recent upgrade of State Highway 153, which runs from the Central Wisconsin Airport through the Village of Elderon.

With his business now well-positioned for the future, Dombeck reflects on the relationships that came together to make the facility a reality. “There was no way anyone could’ve guessed the way all the pieces of the puzzle came together on this,” says Dombeck. “You have to be ready for the right opportunity and you have to trust in your community relationships.”

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