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Young adult map

This map plots communities in Wisconsin that have increased the number of young adults and their proportion in the community. They are scarce in the northern portion of the state.

As the state of Wisconsin launches a multimillion dollar ad campaign to lure millennials from Chicago to the Badger state, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor suggests drilling down locally to learn how to gain and maintain young people in the state’s rural communities.

“Young adults aren’t necessarily moving to Wisconsin, they’re going to move to a particular community in Wisconsin,” said Randy Stoecker, a sociologist who works with the University of Wisconsin-Extension Center for Community and Economic Development. The questions become very local, he said.

While the failure to attract educated young people to rural communities in the state has been documented, Stoecker and his team wanted to focus on communities that are bucking that trend.

In a report released in December, they identified communities that are gaining or maintaining young people at above average rates without the presence of a major industrial plant or large university. When those communities were plotted on a map, one thing was apparent: there were few in the northern part of the state.

Then the group analyzed factors that helped those towns attract and retain young people: good schools, affordable housing, proximity to a larger city for work, shopping and entertainment, and amenities geared toward young families.

But the nuances of how those factors come into play are instructive, Stoecker said. He is inviting leaders in Wisconsin’s small communities to survey their own young adults about what attracted them to the town, what keeps them there, and what they need that they can’t yet find.

Researchers visited a dozen small communities that gained and retained residents ages 20-39 more successfully that the state median rate between 1990 and 2010.

In Brooklyn, an affluent village of 1,400 (2010) about 20 miles south of Madison that straddles the border of Dane and Green counties, the elementary school is a unifying force.

“The school is great, huge selling point for Brooklyn," one young adult resident told researchers.

“The location of Brooklyn is ideal. You can commute to Madison in less than 30 minutes, you can commute to Janesville,” said another resident. “The housing affordability is a big deal for some families that are younger. Buying a house in Oregon vs. Brooklyn can save you thousands for the exact same house.”

But the village has only an elementary school, Stoecker noted. Older children go to schools in the Oregon School District. But residents do talk of the village as a “starter” community for young adults who move to the Madison area as their children get older, he said. “They are just starting their families and careers and are willing to live in a smaller house on a smaller lot, farther from the city.”

Residents also said it’s hard for the limited population of the village to adequately support local businesses, so there is not much in the way of shopping.

Hayward, a low-income city of just over 2,300 in the northern county of Sawyer known for its outdoor tourism, is home to the American Birkebeiner ski race.

While opportunities for outdoor recreation were important in all the community case studies, “in Hayward, it’s a way of life,” Stoecker said.

“It's hard to want to leave a place where people want to go on vacation," one resident told researchers.

Hayward was an outlier in some ways, Stoecker said. Unlike the other case study communities, people in Hayward did not talk about living there to be close to a city for jobs, shopping or entertainment. And reliance on nearby employment, much in the lower-paying service sector, mean that it is common for people to work more than one job.

“I'm not the only one I know who works 70-90 hour weeks," one resident told researchers. Others lamented the lack of rental housing. “Housing is terrible for young adults here,” said another.

Many people interviewed said they did not want the community to lose its small town appeal. "People don't want to turn Hayward into the Dells. Some business owners want that. A lot of residents don't," one remarked.

Wisconsin’s ad campaign, everywhere in Chicago from social media to “El” transit trains, began last week as a $1 million effort through June. But Gov. Scott Walker wants lawmakers to approve $6.8 million more to continue the campaign.

The ads focus on such advantages as shorter commutes and a variety of recreational activities.

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The campaign has drawn some grumbles in Wisconsin, and ridicule from Chicago, but marketing an area has its place, said Christian Schock, director of planning, community and economic development for Wausau.

Wausau, a city of 40,000 in Marathon County, 150 miles north of Madison, is working in partnership with its manufacturing, tech and health care industries to meet workforce demands, Schock said.

And the city has done print ads, he said, that highlight its approach to meet one of the core demands of young adults identified in Stoecker’s research: affordable housing.

The city partnered with a local developer on rental row houses near the city center, now under construction, to provide more diverse choices for young professionals, Schock said.

“You can’t just say ‘Wausau is cool,’ every city can say that. You need to rise above the marketing noise,” he said. “Marketing is not a bad idea, but you have to invest in quality of life, too.”

Stoecker’s report notes that the state's rural places are the least likely home for young adults.

“There are no easy interventions for this condition, especially given Wisconsin's political climate,” the report notes. “In a different political climate we could talk about subsidizing schools and housing, growing northwoods cities with urban infrastructure, planning appropriate housing development, and a variety of other measures that would create not just the communities, but the regions that attract and keep young adults. But those discussions will not be on the table for some time.”

Stoecker has been visiting Wisconsin communities to talk about his research and encourage them to start local conversations to guide economic development.

The study report includes a DIY kit for learning from and about young people in the community.

Imagine if every community in the state did a self case study like his researchers did to find out what kind of things would attract and keep young adults, Stoecker urged. “We’d have an incredibly informed populace and policy based in smart grassroots thinking. That could probably move political mountains.”

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