Rural Population Loss in Wisconsin

Back in July a reporter, Mario Koran, and myself wandered around northern and central Wisconsin working on a story about why young people are leaving small towns in Wisconsin. Today, after months of fine-tuning all elements of the story, I’m proud to say it is published.

The concept of rural population loss is something that has interested me for a number of years. Everyone seems to know it is happening, but no one can really say why, or why it matters. I’m so happy that the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism gave Mario and I the resources and time to work on a project to answer some of these questions and help explain why they matter. The end product is truly an in-depth story with a scale and scope that no other media outlet in Wisconsin has ever produced on the subject.

You can read the full story complete with interactive maps and graphics on WCIJ’s website. Also, I highly suggest clicking here to view the audio slideshows that accompany the story. They are super cool and we spent a lot of time working on them. 

It’s great to see other media outlets already picking up the story, including the Wisconsin State Journal who ran the story on their front page today:

I’ve also posted the full length story and some of my favorite photos below (sans multimedia elements because my blog isn’t fancy enough to handle that stuff) :

Rural population loss in Wisconsin

by Mario Koran
Photos by Lukas Keapproth

HURLEY — It’s Fourth of July weekend in this Iron County community, and 19-year-old Chanel Youngs tends an empty store.

Aside from the whir from the ceiling fan, and the sound of a slow-passing car down Silver Street, the Liberty Bell Chalet is quiet. “Nothing ever happens here, nothing ever changes,” Youngs says.

Youngs, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, doesn’t plan to stay in her hometown much longer. “I knew if I wanted to be successful, get a degree, a good paying job, I had to leave.”

During the 1990s, only Milwaukee County lost population in Wisconsin. But from 2000 to 2010, while the state’s population grew by 6 percent, 19 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties lost population, with the declines concentrated in rural areas. The losses continued in most of those rural counties in 2011.

In these places, the population is aging, fewer babies are born, and fewer workers are left to support — and care for — those left behind.

“When we think about the needs of the community and the tax base that’s required to support a community and all of its services, this is where it really starts to matter, not only for the current well-being of the community but for the future well-being for the community,” says Katherine Curtis, a UW-Madison assistant professor of community and environmental sociology.

Since 2000, Iron County has lost nearly 14 percent of its population — roughly one out of every seven people. With a median age of 51, its population is the oldest in Wisconsin.

Curtis says an aging county means fewer economically productive people in the community. Less than half of the population over 16 years old was in the workforce in Iron County in 2010 “due to its old population,” according to the state Department of Workforce Development. That compares to a statewide rate of 69 percent.

Until recently, a relatively diverse constellation of industries — farming, manufacturing, mining and tourism — has sustained these communities, say experts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Applied Population Laboratory (APL).

While “these patterns exist across the country,” each county has its own story about why young people are leaving, says Dan Veroff, APL director and demographic specialist.

“In the story of rural population loss, you’re not going to find a one-note song,” Veroff says.

Communities such as Hurley are hoping for a revival in the long-dormant mining industry, while hemorrhaging the same young people — often the most talented — who could help stave off the brain drain.

And while Youngs complains about the pace of small-town Wisconsin, the inconveniences, the lack of opportunity, she says she would miss the sense of community in Hurley, where people pitch in when neighbors need money for medical treatment or other crises..

If Hurley were to fade away, Youngs says, “That’d be sad.  Because I really love it here.  I have really cool memories here.

“It’s a great place to grow up, but you have to leave.”

A county on pause

Sonni Lauren tends bar on a Friday night at the Liberty Bell, her family’s store and restaurant, which has served local residents and tourists since 1923.

She slides around the bar, pouring drinks, greeting customers by name. She knows some people confuse living in a small town with lack of ambition, but Lauren says she has never wanted to leave.

“Some people make you feel like, ‘Why are you here in this small town?’  But I don’t have to explain myself. It’s my family’s restaurant, and I’m a lifer. I’m sure of it.”

In Hurley, her children can ride their bikes around the block in safety, they have the same teachers she had, and the principal knows them by name. But the quality of life that keeps Lauren close to home may be slipping away.

The effect of Iron County’s graying population can be seen in the Hurley School District, where enrollment dropped nearly 19 percent, to 626 students, between 2000 and 2010. As a result, annual state aid dropped by $1 million to $3.5 million.

Some look to mine with hope

To reverse the population slide, many residents are counting on a revival of a plan to open a large iron mine in Iron County and Ashland counties.

Last year, Gogebic Taconite proposed a 4 ½-mile-long mine that would cost $1.5 billion and bring an estimated 700 jobs. But the project stalled after the state Senate, facing stiff opposition from environmental groups and Indian tribes, turned down a bill sought by the company that would have eased mining regulations.

Hurley Mayor Joe Pinardi says 95 percent of his constituents favored the mine. He says the county cannot continue to rely on tourists drawn to its lakes, scenic beauty, hunting and fishing.
Tourism, he says, is too unsteady.

“What we really need is some sort of industry. Tourism is great—it’s gravy on your potatoes, but you need something substantial. We all need to eat a little meat too,” Pinardi says.

The mayor believes the mine bill, which is expected to be resurrected in January, could be the key to reversing Iron County’s population slide. Critics counter that a large mine could keep people from visiting the area, where restaurants and drinking establishments are the top employer.

“Attract young people? You don’t need to do anything to attract them. All you have to do is create jobs so that they can stay here,” Pinardi says. “That’s what we need to do. That’s the reason why we’re pushing this mining issue.”

Will Andresen, a community resource development educator at the UW-Extension Iron County office, is working on a variety of strategies to attract and retain young people.

Andresen has helped organize a young professionals’ group, planned mountain bike trails in the surrounding area and worked to market Iron County as an ideal destination for young professionals who value outdoor recreation.

“We’re not going to compete with a larger city, but we can compete with the amenities and the core community values we can offer,” Andresen says.

But there can be tension between tourism and the need for good-paying jobs, says Gary Green, UW-Madison professor of community and environmental sociology.

“The problem with tourism is that it tends to be part-time jobs, seasonal jobs,” Green says.

“(Tourists) go to northern counties to canoe in the rivers and hike in the woods, and they don’t want to see a bunch of manufacturing plants. The local people want the jobs, but the seasonal residents and the tourists don’t want the manufacturing there.

“So it’s a real dilemma. How do you not kill the golden goose of tourism in these counties?”

Back at the Liberty Bell, Lauren says everyone is worried what will happen if the mine does not come.

“I think we’re all concerned about young people leaving, even my grandpa,” she says. “He talks about it all the time — how the mines have to come so he won’t have to worry about us. He wants to know that when he leaves here that we have enough to be taken care of.”

She adds, “I think that the anticipation of the mine and the possibility of it not coming is very worrisome for everybody because it’s the possibility of our children not having to leave. We hope that we can have more than what we have now. Attract more people. Have more tourism. Have more for the locals. So, fingers crossed.”

Young mayor helps rebuild town

WISCONSIN RAPIDS — On a drive through southern Wood County, Dave Engel pulls his car to the side of the road, steps onto the street and points to the paper mill across the Wisconsin River.

“This mill was money making, efficient, community oriented — everything you would want in a company — until the paper industry started to crack,” Engel says. “Now it’s just a symbol. We used to be on the cutting edge. Now we’re on the bloody edge.”

Engel is a retired University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point English professor and a scholar on Wood County history. He remembers when the county was the headquarters for some of the world’s largest paper companies.

Engel has seen his hometown devolve from a place of wealth to one of economic insecurity as one of its largest employers, the paper industry, has declined. Now, he says, young people are leaving faster than ever.

Wisconsin’s population grew 6 percent during the 2000s. But one-fourth of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, including Wood, lost population between 2000 and 2010. Overall, the county’s population declined by 1.1 percent. Meanwhile, the population of every surrounding county grew.

The decline in paper-industry jobs statewide and in Wood County has been drastic. Wisconsin has lost 35 percent of its paper mill jobs over the past decade, dropping from 48,000 jobs to 31,000.

In all, 34 plants, including two in Wood County, have closed.

The loss to Wood County has been even more dramatic: In the past decade, the county lost nearly 50 percent of its paper manufacturing jobs, down to 2,200 jobs from 4,300 jobs in 2001, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“People have always been leaving the farms, they’ve always been leaving the mill towns,” Engel says.  “The sad part is that people who want to stay, can’t figure out how to.”
In the late 1990s, paper companies’ profits started to plummet, due in part to rising pulp costs and moves toward a paperless society brought on by digital technology, he says.

Engel says Consolidated Paper was critical to his family’s financial success. It paid his father decent wages, enabled his mother to stay home with the children, and even provided him a summer job that he used to pay for college.

Like any parent, Engel says, he wants to live close to his children, but he also knew Wisconsin Rapids wasn’t right for his daughter.

After she graduated from high school, Engel’s now 22-year-old daughter, Angelica, left Wood County to attend UW-Madison.  She was looking for a more vibrant, creative culture in Madison that she thought was lacking at nearby UW-Stevens Point.

“Rapids feels hopeless, at least for me,” says Angelica, who graduated in May from UW-Madison. “People who are there don’t necessarily want to be there. Some got stuck. It feels still and stagnant; I can feel it in the air. And I don’t feel inspired by it.”

Life after the mills

At 24, Zach Vruwink did not create the problems that caused the population decline in Wood County. But, as the recently elected mayor of Wisconsin Rapids, it is his job to help fix them.

Vruwink, named a ‘Millennial Mayor’ by Atlantic magazine, is part of a growing number of young mayors elected by communities seeking fresh ideas.

In his parents’ generation, “The understanding was, you graduated high school, and you were able to go work in the mill,” Vruwink says.

But his stepfather was laid off from one of the mills, and by the time Vruwink entered the workforce, the promise of a job in the industry had largely evaporated.

“In high school, the perception and the attitude of most of my peers was that, ‘I will not return to this community. Wisconsin Rapids is a dying mill town, and I have no future here,’ ” Vruwink says. “The reality was, I was not going to derive (an income) from the paper industry, I was not going to get a job in the mill.”

It is the negative perception of small towns, as much the local job market, that needs to be addressed if Wisconsin Rapids is to regain its former status, says Vruwink, mayor of the 18,340-population city.

Millworkers still make up a large percentage of the community’s workforce, but Vruwink sees new potential in the cranberry bogs and marshes surrounding Wisconsin Rapids. The city is poised to recreate its image as a major food producer and processor, he says.

Yet, this small central Wisconsin community faces a problem with which many areas of the state are now familiar: the widening gap between the skills employers want and the training and experience of local residents looking for work.

Mariani Cranberry, for example, plans to expand and create new jobs at its processing plant. The company is looking for workers with advanced degrees and high-tech skills — not necessarily the kind of person once employed by the paper industry.

As more young people move away, Vruwink says, it gets harder to draw new businesses to the area.

The mayor says he prefers a grow-your-own approach in which local businesses such as Mariani Cranberry or Ocean Spray would offer internships to young people and encourage them to pursue careers and opportunities locally.

“If somebody wants to locate here to grow a business here, and they don’t see the workforce with the skills, of course they’re going to leave and we’re never going to be able to retain firms here,” Vruwink says.

Vruwink says part of his job is to spend time with students. He tells them, “ ‘Yup, you need to get your education. And it’s quite all right to go off to school, but always consider moving and returning back to your community because we need young ideas, we need educated individuals.’ ”

Hispanic immigrants stave off population dip

CHILI — Jeremy Meissner, 29, squints in the sunbaked pasture near his 2,200-head Clark County dairy farm. Huron Mireles, 31, a herdsman and one of Meissner’s most dependable employees, joins him in the field as the two discuss the day’s work.

Meissner grew up on this family farm and always knew he would return, to live and to raise his own family.
Unlike many rural Wisconsin counties, Clark County added population from 2000 to 2010, growing by 3.4 percent, to an estimated 34,690. The growth was fueled in part by the Hispanic population, which grew by 219 percent between 2000 and 2010. At the same time, white population grew less than 1 percent.

“Overall, there’s an important effect and important contribution of the Hispanic population,” says Katherine Curtis, assistant professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“In local communities we often hear about their importance in keeping the dairy industry afloat and rural schools open — in some cases, just keeping rural communities alive.”

In agriculture-based counties such as Clark, Hispanic workers and their young families rejuvenate an aging labor force. Hispanics now make up an estimated 40 percent of all of the state’s dairy workers.

“Around here, you get Hispanic workers, a lot, stopping by, looking for work with experience — which is hard to come by,” Meissner says.

Meissner’s herdsman, Mireles, was born in Zacatecas, Mexico. In 2001, he left four children, a wife and a job at a meatpacking plant in Iowa when he traveled north to find stable work. He’s been at Meissner’s farm ever since.

The arrangement is mutually beneficial. Meissner takes pride in the fact he pays his employees well and he’s often invited to family events such as parties and baptisms. The whole farm, from mechanics to milkers, work together to keep the cows happy, Meissner says.

“Hispanics (are) very good workers and they care about their job that’s the main thing,” he says.  “They care about the cows and making the farm profitable.”

Even so, hiring Hispanic workers is not something he advertises.

“We usually just talk about it because people are dead set against it,” Meissner says.

Some local leaders say they are concerned that some of the newest residents may be here illegally. They worry that some immigrants are unable to communicate adequately in English and may be taxing local services.

But Curtis says that’s the same population that should be credited with saving some parts of rural Wisconsin.

“The population would have grown slower and we would be older had it not been for the increase in girth in our Hispanic population,” she says.

Changing farms, changing faces

Alejandro Vasquez, editor of Noticias, a Spanish-language newspaper in Abbotsford, often serves as an informal advocate for fellow Hispanics.

Vasquez says workers arriving in central Wisconsin are mostly Mexicans who have migrated from other parts of the United States to work in Wisconsin’s dairy industry, where a growing number of large operations, like Meissner’s, provide year-round work.

Clark County ranks first in the state in number of cows and dairy farms. The county’s $1.5 billion agricultural sector generates 63 percent of the business sales and provides 46 percent of its jobs, according to a 2011 UW-Extension report.

But the structure of the industry is changing. In Clark County, for example, some family farms are going away, replaced by a larger, more corporate style of farming. These businesses produce more milk with fewer farms, and they increasingly rely on immigrant labor.

Vasquez says many farm owners are older, and their children don’t want to work on the family farm.

“Who’s going to milk the cows? Who’s going to work the countryside? This is why the Hispanic community has such important role in the state of Wisconsin. And the government knows it,” Vasquez says in his native Spanish.

Birth rates fuel growth

Data suggest young Hispanic and Amish families may be providing a counterbalance to Clark County’s aging population.

While the median age for white Wisconsinites is 40.9, among Hispanics it is 23.5. The Clark County birth rate is 16.7 per 1,000 residents “incredibly high” compared to the statewide rate of 12.5, according to the Department of Workforce Development’s 2011 profile of Clark County.

“To put it simply, Clark County has a lot of children and a lot of old people, compared to the rest of the state,” the report says.

Reed Welsh, Abbotsford School District administrator, says his district is one of the few in the area that has added students in recent years, thanks to the influx of immigrants. In 2000, just under 7 percent of students were Hispanic; now it’s just over 35 percent. Enrollment has increased from 651 in 2000 to 707 in 2011, an increase of nearly 9 percent.

Vasquez says Latinos not only support the local workforce, but through their spending power — buying gas, vehicles, insurance and groceries — their presence is crucial to the local economy.  

Life in Clark County is good, he says. “Here the big fear is of the police.”

Abbotsford Police Chief Ron Gosse acknowledges Hispanic workers are important to the local economy, and he questions whether the area’s farms and meat processing plants could find enough laborers locally without these immigrants.

“Certainly it’s also a challenge,” he adds. “Any time we pull a Spanish-speaker over we have to call in a Spanish interpreter,” which can put a strain on resources.

State Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, who represents parts of Clark, Marathon and Wood counties, acknowledges that Hispanic immigrants have helped the region economically, “and the people who I know are very hard working, very family oriented, very nice people.”

“I know people feel very strongly, in Clark County, on both sides of (immigration reform),” the lawmaker says.

But, he adds, “If there are some people who are not here legally, that’s where the tension comes in. What should be done? That’s not an issue I have jurisdiction over. That becomes a question for the federal government.”

Suder believes that strategies beyond immigration, such as improving highways, funding additional enterprise zones in rural areas and keeping taxes low on farmers, can help create jobs and retain young people.

Hispanic residents here to stay

Storm clouds gather over the nearby cornfields, and Vasquez watches his 15-year-old son, Alex, play basketball with a cousin. Alex springs from a trampoline to dunk the ball, rising into the darkening sky.

Vasquez says politicians complain about illegal immigration but have done little to solve it or the shortage of workers for the county’s dominant agricultural sector.

“Suder, for example, he doesn’t support the illegal people here,” Vasquez says. “But it’s not only that he doesn’t support them, it’s that he doesn’t do anything to propose a solution.”

Vasquez says he and his family are legal residents and proud to be Americans.

“This country is No. 1 in the world because of all the races,” he says. “Everyone here knows it — the whites, the blacks and the Hispanics. The only thing we want is to work, in order to live well.  That’s all we want. It’s not much.”

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