“I like to bring people together and say ‘figure it out,’” said Brad Kowieski.
That motto could apply to his job overseeing a work team as a senior vice president/commercial banking manager with Nicolet National Bank in Rhinelander, volunteering with economic development in Oneida County or teaching second-graders about financial literacy through Junior Achievement.
The “goodness” that can come from people talking together is what Kowieski finds rewarding.
“I think it’s important when you’re volunteering to contribute to the cause, don’t just be on a board,” he said. “My goal is not just to be on a board for the sake of being on a board. You want to be impactful.”
“I’ve been lucky to stay in the community,” said the Rhinelander native and 1993 graduate of Rhinelander High School.
He has three brothers — each of them born two years apart. “My dad was a partner with Wifli (an accounting firm in Rhinelander) and all four boys have an accounting background,” he said.
His mother was a registered nurse — both of his parents were originally from Thorp.
Kowieski studied accounting at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and after working in the field elsewhere, he came home to Rhinelander in 2000 to work with Heck Capital Advisors.
He credits founder Robert G. Heck for serving as a forward-thinking mentor to him in his early 20s and throughout his career.
Among Heck’s greatest community accomplishments was spearheading the modernization of the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport during a pivotal time when it looked like the county would lose commercial aviation service.
He was recognized for his efforts on April 8, 2018, when the airport terminal was named the “Robert G. Heck Passenger Terminal.” Heck died at age 85 on Jan. 7, 2022.
Since 2017, Kowieski has been a member of the three-person Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport Commission and said he is proud to be continuing “that stewardship and helping the airport grow.”
Other members of the commission are Patrick Marquart and Geoff Weller.
The airport is “an economic driver,” Kowieski said. “Without the airport, Rhinelander wouldn't be what it is.”
He described the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport as “one of the best airports in the Midwest” and is a partnership between the city and the county. The airport is served
commercially by Delta Airlines, which connects to St. Paul/Minneapolis, and is also busy with private aircraft. A Green Bay Packers memorabilia display greets travelers in the Heck Terminal.
“From Rhinelander, you can get anywhere in the world,” Kowieski said, noting the airport is not only important to residents of the Northwoods but also to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“It's a really dynamic place, with an “unbelievable staff of 15,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate. A lot of cities and airports are losing services. We’re in a position that our routes are strong.”
A recent major improvement was upgrading the airport parking to an automated revenue control system with electronic forms of payment at kiosks, which replaced the paper envelope payment system.
Rhinelander is the economic hub of the Northwoods, said Kowieski, who served as president of the Oneida County Economic Development Corporation (OCEDC) from April 2019 to April 2021. He is currently secretary.
OCEDC is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation, not a government agency. It assists individuals investigating the feasibility of going into business, works with existing business to expand and retain economic viability, and works to attract new business to Oneida County.
He is particularly proud of the small loan pool the OCEDC developed that allows entrepreneurs to apply for loans of $5,000 to $10,000.
Being in the position at the bank, “I can connect people to resources,” he said.
Kowieski describes economic development this way: “I like to bring people together that I think will have a good conversation. However they take that conversation is up to them, but there’s a chance it might generate some goodness. You never know when the stars might align.”
“I've been in economic development probably for 10 years,” he said, speaking enthusiastically about how during the past five years, Rhinelander has experienced “a more progressive spirit in terms of taking care of infrastructure, but also looking forward to the future.”
That includes building the Hodag Dome, the largest air-supported high school dome sports complex in the country, which was completed in 2021 and is operated by the Rhinelander School District.
It has over 128,000 square feet of climate controlled, indoor space, designed for high school and community gatherings and offers memberships to community residents.
The Hodag Dome includes a full-size turf football field, a soccer pitch, two regular size softball and youth baseball fields as well as a golf simulator, four tennis courts, pickleball, batting cages, a 100-meter track and dedicated times for community walkers.
“Our dome allows our kids to practice sports all year long,” Kowieski said. “It really helps keep us on equal footing” with other parts of the state where winter doesn’t last as long.
“A lot of people did a lot of hard work” to get the Hodag Dome built, he said. The Rhinelander Community Foundation led the effort to get dollars pledged from the community, which enabled the school district to fund the rest, he said. He credits Dave Heck, senior director of Heck Capital Advisors, and Janet Jamison, now the Hodag Dome manager, for their efforts.
Kowieski is always quick to point out that it takes people working together to achieve a common goal.
“It’s people serving on boards. It’s people volunteering their time,” he said. “This is where we want to go, and getting behind ideas and promoting them.”
Besides the volunteer hours Kowieski gives to the airport commission and Oneida County economic development, his other volunteer focus tends to be with youth in the community.
During the five 45-minute Junior Achievement sessions for second graders, “you’re teaching them basically about a community and how a community operates,” he said. “You teach them about businesses, you teach them about voting and making decisions, you teach them how money moves through a community.”
They start a business, he said, and then, “They’re surprised they get paid $5 and they have to pay $2 in taxes, and learning about voting … and you might not always get what you want. It's really a mini civics class in a way.”
He has also coached Little League and been president of the Rhinelander Little League.
Kowieski was among those who helped raise $70,000 to build a new concession stand that he said has been “huge” for Hodag Park, which boasts three baseball diamonds and the 75-year tradition of the summer Hodag Water Shows.
“Velocity is important,” Kowieski said of community growth. “You’ve always got to keep moving forward. You can’t stop.”
“I'm proud of the community and where we have gotten to,” Kowieski said. “I want to see Rhinelander continue to be a sustainable community that keeps moving forward in a manner that works best for the people.”