A few years ago, the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance released a demographic report with a decidedly ominous title: “The Impending Storm.”
The study found that over the following 30 years — mostly due to baby boomers retiring — “the size of Wisconsin’s workforce will stall” and its “working-age population is expected to decline 0.2 percent.” Only 21 of the state’s 72 counties are likely to have increases in residents aged 20 to 64, the report said, and those populations are expected to drop more than 10 percent in 13 northern counties.
To help contend with such trends, UW-Madison and UW-Extension researchers recently released the study “Gaining and Maintaining Young People in Wisconsin Rural Communities.” The report’s purpose was to analyze 12 communities that are maintaining or increasing their number of young adults “and then figure out what might account for their success,” said researcher Randy Stoecker in a news release.
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Among the 12 communities studied, New Richmond, Somerset, Onalaska and Hayward were the closest to the Chippewa Valley.
Overall, the report found that communities gaining or maintaining young adults are much more likely to be near cities and freeways to make available employment, entertainment and shopping opportunities. The project, which mostly targeted those 20 to 39 years in age, included demographic research, interviews and surveys. It found that other key qualities that attracted young adults were:
• Perceived quality of schools.
• Perceived affordability of housing.
• Outdoor amenities such as parks and trails, with appreciation for both motorized and silent (skiing, hiking, etc.) recreation.
• A small town sense of community and civic engagement.
Hayward bucked some of those trends.
“We cannot stress enough how unique Hayward is,” the report read. “There are only a handful of other places ‘up north’ that meet our criteria. ... And those other places are also tiny spots where a new subdivision of a dozen lots can make a large difference in percentages, not developed towns like Hayward. Hayward, consequently, is the exception that makes the rule.”
The outdoors culture set Hayward apart. As one survey respondent said when asked why he or she lived in the community: “The lifestyle. It’s hard to want to leave a place where people want to go on vacation.”
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The New Richmond case study found that affordable home ownership was an important factor, as were its proximity to the Twin Cities and strong schools thanks, at least in part, to a recently passed referendum.
For most of the communities studied, the top four factors for attracting young adults were relatively affordable housing, good schools, agreeable commuting distance from a city, and specific amenities geared toward young families.
Implications of the report, according to the researchers, included:
• Maintaining high quality schools is essential for attracting and maintaining young adult populations.
• Different communities need to provide different mixes of housing for different families at different life cycle stages.
• Public outdoor amenities for a diversity of recreation activities will be valued by young adults.
• Rural and small town development may be tied together with urban development.
• Communities need to address the tensions created by the need for volunteerism to maintain the small town feel, while people spend large amounts of time in cities for jobs, entertainment and shopping.
• Universities and colleges may influence not just their home city, but also the region as a place for graduates to settle.
Hopefully, the success stories in the study — and an ensuing sharing of best practices — can play a role in helping communities in rural Wisconsin that have been less fortunate in retaining and attracting young adults.