Wisconsin farm cornfield and landscape — Image by David Mark free use from Pixabay
Leaders and officials in Wisconsin’s rural communities must be creative and work together to turn around decades of decline and build sustainable local economies, experts said at a WisPolitics event held in La Crosse on Tuesday.
The results of Wisconsin’s 2020 census show declining populations in many rural areas and a 4% decrease in the number of children in the state as Wisconsinites increasingly cluster near urban areas such as Madison or the Twin Cities suburbs. Meanwhile agriculture, long the backbone of the state’s rural economy, is declining as family farms are forced out of business and those who remain expand to survive.
But there is opportunity, speakers at the event held at Western Technical College said. Billions of dollars are set to flow into rural communities as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal COVID-19 relief bill passed earlier this year, and potentially through a $1 trillion infrastructure bill already passed by the Senate.
Last year, Gov. Tony Evers’ Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity released a report that gives a roadmap for the challenges facing rural Wisconsin. The ten policy recommendations in the report and the detailed explanations of the problems span from the need for expanding high-speed broadband internet access to making it easier to construct affordable housing in small towns and improving access to high quality health care and education.
However elected officials and local organizations try to tackle the interconnected set of obstacles, panelists said, it all comes back to making the community an attractive place to live and raise their families, convincing children it’s worthwhile to come back home.
“How do we get those kids thinking about where they want to live in their future?” Marcy West, director of the Wisconsin Office of Rural Prosperity, said at the event.
Other speakers said it can be simpler than that. Nathan Franklin, director of external affairs at Gundersen Health System, grew up on a dairy farm in central Wisconsin and said while he has no desire to return, he lives in a different rural community now. Policymakers don’t need to convince kids they have to move back home, just that a rural community can be home.
“It’s not about getting kids back to their hometown, it’s about getting them to a hometown,” Franklin said.
West says her son recently graduated from UW-Stevens Point and moved to Minneapolis with his partner, partially because of the close access to outdoor activities. She says the activities he was seeking are readily available in places across rural Wisconsin.
“Actually my son graduated from Stevens Point this spring and decided to move to Minneapolis-St. Paul and I kind of use them as my sounding board of ‘how’d you make that decision?’” West tells the Wisconsin Examiner. “He’s into mountain biking, he’s into the outdoors, as well as his partner, and places like Minneapolis that offer that, I think that’s fabulous. Go there and make those decisions, but then I’ve also met people in that age group that grew up in the city and really want to experience something else.”
“So I think we’re going to try to get rid of that stigma, we’re not all cheddar heads and back roads, the people that want to live in rural, live in rural, and they make it work,” she continues. “Wisconsin and this region has so many opportunities for folks who really love the outdoors.” Particularly as employers and schools offer online options, working or studying from rural areas is more accessible, she adds. “I think the word of mouth is going to be our best advertisement.”
But to convince young people to move to, and stay in, rural communities, the challenges highlighted in the rural prosperity report need to be addressed. Young parents won’t stay in a community if it’s a childcare desert, the schools are hard to get to or there are not enough jobs.
“To some degree, amenities and livability matter a lot,” Justin Maxson, deputy undersecretary for rural development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said at the event. “Folks want access to the sorts of things in their communities, particularly rural communities, that they can get in higher population communities — access to quality health care, high-speed broadband, entertainment, high quality education — and so we’ve got to do the long-term investing that it takes to build the infrastructure and quality of services that it takes to be an attractive place to be. Not just to bring in new workers but to provide high quality of life for local residents.”
To get there, West says she thinks every community from the tiniest village on up needs to come up with a plan and execute it — connecting local government with the community’s strongest organizations and institutions.
“It’s strategic thinking, there’s not going to be one silver bullet that fixes everything,” West says. “Each community that we’ve met with has really good ideas, independent really good ideas on those types of issues that they’re facing.”
“We’re not just throwing money at it,” she adds, saying grant money available through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) is meant to fund projects created at the local level. “You have to have an idea of where the priorities are and where we’ll get the most bang for our buck. … when you get those folks together they really do start to figure out the solutions themselves.”
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