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The Portage Area Chamber of Commerce celebrated the achievements of 2016 at its annual awards banquet Wednesday night, featuring a high-energy cheerleader for small-business growth.

“We thought we were pulling into this budget season with a certain set of numbers, just like you in your businesses every day and even your family budget — you make certain plans based on certain expectations,” said keynote speaker Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

“What we didn’t realize is just how well you all were doing last year, because we came in with biennial expectations that were very different from the numbers. At the end of January it was announced we were going to come in $712 million more than what we expected. Our state has recovered so well from the recession and we have put in so many levers into our policy that our economy has truly and fully recovered.”

Given new circumstances, Kleefisch said, the governor's proposed budget fulfills the request of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers of increasing funding per pupil in K-12 education by $200 in the first year and $204 in the second year, “an extraordinary infusion for our K-12 schools over the next biennium.”

“This money is going into the classroom because of what happened a few years ago with the reforms of Act 10, the money that comes in per-pupil is getting directed right at the pupils,” said Kleefisch. “The students are seeing the infusion.”

She praised a continuation of the University of Wisconsin System tuition freeze and a 5 percent reduction in the second year.

“We see what’s happening in the Wisconsin economy,” Kleefisch said. “We know, when we listen to small businesses, one of the deepest concerns is, if I do a 10-year plan, if I do a 20-year plan, how am I going to ensure that I have the right people to hire.”

Without finding the right people with the will to work, Kleefisch said, businesses will look for employees in Minnesota, or Illinois or China.

“That’s why we’re investing in our K-12 schools, that’s why we’re investing in our universities, that’s why we’re investing in our technical colleges.”

Portage Mayor Rick Dodd talked to the crowd of about 100 about accomplishments of the past year, which included a county-leading job growth of 1.15 percent.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s quite a good thing,” said Dodd. “And if we can, like Steve (director of business development and planning Sobiek) pointed out, get more skilled workers, we have jobs open in a lot of our communities and a lot of our areas right now.”

Among the economic wins for the city, Dodd tallied 16 expansions or renovations among Portage area businesses, three new manufacturers, Trienda’s purchase of Penda, nine new retail stores, two community foundations for future investment, along with the flattering notoriety of being featured in a BBC documentary looking at railroads and the canal.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marianne Hanson ended the evening by recognizing some of those businesses that have opened in the past couple of years, renovated, or proven themselves outstanding as employers or members of the community.

Presented with Business Excellence Award for a business with less than 20 employees was New Life Physical Therapy, which opened in Portage in 2002, and has since expanded to Baraboo and Westfield.

In the category of business excellence among businesses with 20 or more employees, the winner was battery maker Rayovac, which marked 50 years of operation in Portage in 2014.

“All of this doesn’t happen by accident,” Dodd said, rounding out his review of non-profit projects that had ribbon cuttings in the past year. “It happens because organizations like this and others in the city, are committed to the city’s success.”