In northern Wisconsin, economic worries and opportunities are unique
Judged only by unemployment figures, Wisconsin looks prosperous compared to the nation as a whole. The statewide jobless rate of 3.9% in August was more than a percentage point less than the U.S. rate of 5.2%.
Within Wisconsin’s average unemployment rate, however, are sharp peaks and deep valleys. Dane County’s 2.7% rate is what economists describe as “full employment” and Menominee County’s 10.7% rate rivals anything seen during the Great Recession of the late 2000s.
On the high end, 11 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties reported August jobless rates equal to or higher than the national average. Most of those 11 counties are clustered in northern Wisconsin, where the formula for economic prosperity can be very different from the blend that works in other parts of the state.
Finding the right mix was the topic of the first Grow North Strategy Forum, where a group of business owners and managers, educators, government leaders, and economic development experts gathered to talk about challenges and opportunities in the North Woods. Grow North is an eight-county regional development group, much like MadRep in south-central Wisconsin or M-7 in the Milwaukee region.
The discussion in scenic St. Germain centered on issues that often don’t occur to people living in Madison or suburban Milwaukee, but which directly affect the northern Wisconsin economy. Here are examples:
Forest products and paper: What worries many people close to Wisconsin’s forest products industry is a combination of threats that make it difficult to responsibly harvest enough timber. Regulations at the state and federal level are seen as daunting, the workforce is aging, and transportation costs and access hurdles get in the way of shipping wood products to mills and markets.
Transporting wood products by truck can be too expensive, and pressures on the rail industry — including competition for freight trains and cars from the oil fields in the Dakotas — have become a daily challenge in northern Wisconsin.
Scott Suder, a former legislator who works for the Wisconsin Paper Council, noted the nation’s fleet of rail boxcars has declined from about 200,000 to 120,000 boxcars in 10 years, with mandatory retirements on the horizon for many more.
Public perception of logging is another concern. “A healthy forest is a young forest,” said one forestry expert, who noted that many city dwellers don’t realize that today’s loggers routinely use sustainable practices in harvesting wood — some of which must be removed for the safety and biotic health of the forest.
Broadband: Fast, reliable connections to the Internet are something of a Holy Grail in northern Wisconsin. Broadband is vital for tourism, health care, education, eCommerce, manufacturing, and more, yet the basic economics of obtaining those connections don’t always add up.
Lori Collins, who founded SonicNet in 2007 to serve Oneida and Vilas counties in Wisconsin and eastern Iron County in Michigan, said her company has steadily improved broadband service over time. Most homes in SonicNet’s region can sign up for 10 megabit per second downloads and 3 megabit per second uploads, especially if served by a wireless tower.
It can be a different matter if those homeowners want to connect to optical fiber, which is expensive to install in a region where the average density is under 30 homes per square mile.
“You cannot justify laying that much fiber to serve that many homes,” Collins said.
Still, Collins and others in the region are forming partnerships to improve broadband coverage and to tap into point-to-point fiber that may be just yards from connecting to homes and businesses.
Workforce: Attracting and retaining a talented workforce is critical to the Northwoods. In an age when the population is graying, and finding skilled workers is a challenge for many businesses, how can the region compete for talent?
That question was addressed by educators who talked about novel programs to engage students (big-city educators should take note) and businesspeople who wondered about a chronic mismatch between jobs and people to fill them. Apprenticeships and tech skills were touted as necessary, as were “soft skills” such as communications and teamwork.
Competitive salaries were seen as important, but so were lifestyle issues that can attract and retain young people. Richard Nelson, the new president of Nicolet College in Rhinelander, said the region’s future rests as much on encouraging “brain gain” as stopping “brain drain.”
“If you convince other people’s kids that they want to live here, too, other things will fall into place,” he said. “Fortunately, this region has a lot to offer.”
Keeping that fact in mind and building partnerships around it will be vital to northern Wisconsin’s growth.
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