Economic development in rural Wisconsin: What’s working?

Economic development in rural Wisconsin: What’s working?

If you want to understand just how misleading the unemployment rate can be as an economic indicator, take a look at rural Wisconsin.

Using state labor force statistics, a review of a dozen predominantly rural counties showed a sharp drop in the jobless rate for each county between March 2014 and March 2015. In fact, the average percentage decrease was nearly 1.7 percentage points for these counties: Adams, Ashland, Florence, Green, Iron, Juneau, Lafayette, Langlade, Oneida, Rusk, Sawyer and Trempealeau.

However, nine of those 12 counties registered March 2015 unemployment rates higher than the statewide average (5.4 percent). Several had experienced a drop in the jobless rate while also recording a smaller civilian workforce and fewer people working. Only half showed a significant increase in the number of people working.

In short, the unemployment rate was down – but job growth for those rural counties was stagnant.

The reasons likely range from an aging population to people simply giving up looking for work to out-migration, but not necessarily to places such as Minnesota or Michigan. For many people in rural Wisconsin, pursuit of opportunity may just as easily lead to a job in Madison or the Milwaukee area… or any of a dozen mid-sized cities statewide.

The divide between urban and rural prosperity isn’t new, but closing the gap appears to stubbornly resist the best efforts of many people in federal and state governments, academia, communities, local education and business. Unless you assume people simply don’t want to live in rural Wisconsin, which runs counter to many quality of life arguments, the prosperity gap compels closer inspection.

In a recent column, my suggestions for spurring economic growth in rural Wisconsin included extending high-speed broadband coverage, attracting investment capital, encouraging entrepreneurs, doing a better job of pursuing federal grants, increasing exports and making the state more appealing to young people from elsewhere – as well as those who left home and would like to return.

Among the responses was a note from a veteran grant writer, who suggested Wisconsin fares poorly in pursuing grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture because it lacks the support system to actually write the proposals. The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection ended a “Producer First” program that provided seed dollars for grant and business plan writing, which helped entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector.

“Yes, there is (federal money), but access to those funds requires planning and investment by all involved,” he wrote.

Other responses came from people in government, state and federal, or economic development professionals who cited additional examples of programs and initiatives in the works.

For example, Gov. Scott Walker’s two-year budget bill includes programs related to transportation for rural schools, a “sparsity aid” program for small districts, a water-quality initiative tied to farm producers, other non-point pollution programs, a transfer of $6 million to the Broadband Expansion Grant program, expansion of the Technology for Educational Achievement program for rural schools, and other infrastructure improvements tied to transportation, dam repair and the Eau Claire-area Confluence Arts and Community Center.

The second year of Walker’s budget included $55 million to establish revolving loan funds to be administered by regional economic development organizations and to be overseen by the new Forward Wisconsin Development Authority. Now that plans for that merged authority are off the table, Walker has pulled back the revolving fund idea, as well.

Wisconsin projects cited by the USDA, beginning in 2009, include investments in 386 rural businesses, $122 million invested in rural manufacturing, rural housing programs that helped 22,940 families and investments in export development, broadband and water treatment and supply.

Other examples came from local economic development professionals and the University of Wisconsin System, which increasingly seeks to tie the mission of its four-year and two-year campuses to applying knowledge close to home.

With all that activity, why is rural Wisconsin’s economy still sputtering? While there’s likely no single answer, there may well be multiple answers that involve partnerships across business, educational and government lines.

Too often, it appears, partisan politics get in the way of better state and federal cooperation. Local development efforts are complicated by fights over which jurisdiction gets the property tax revenue if there’s a business expansion or relocation. Businesses may not do the homework to learn about academic resources right under their noses… and campuses don’t always set up “one-stop” ports of entry for businesses that try to do so.

Wisconsin’s overall economy will continue to lag the nation unless its rural areas begin to keep pace with the urban. Let’s hope both parts can move forward together.

Recent articles by Tom Still

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. Still is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.