In Wisconsin, Urban and Rural Go Hand in Hand

This post is part of a series about reducing the divide between urban and rural communities.

In Wisconsin, rural and urban go together like ham and cheddar, Harleys and leather, and bicycle rides on winding country roads. Our state, home to America’s 31st largest city, is also speckled with 601 cities and villages that have a median population of 1,450.

Your mind’s-eye picture of Wisconsin may be rural — but the state has a dozen Metropolitan Statistical Areas. So the first question you need to ask when trying to overlay a “rural-urban divide” on Wisconsin is: Where do you draw the line? Where does urban end and rural begin?

As revealed by NLC’s recent research report, this question may matter to political partisans, but it’s not of much consequence to the state’s economy. The reality is that commerce moves both ways in this state, and it always has. Dairy products, including world-renowned gourmet cheeses, are “born” in rural Wisconsin dairy barns and then crafted, packaged, sold and shipped (and consumed) in cities and villages.

The same applies to the state’s wood products industry. Chicago, Milwaukee and the other mainstay cities of the Midwest were built from the white pine and oak grown in Northern Wisconsin, milled in the Fox River Valley and shipped south.

Even the beloved symbol of urban muscle, the Harley Davidson motorcycle, is assembled with body parts manufactured in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, which has a population 3,335.  Rural resources and small business products are dependent on urban manufacturing, distribution and markets.

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NLC’s Christiana McFarland documents that Wisconsin’s rural economy bolsters its urban economy, and vice versa. Instead of having a “them versus us” mentality, states like Wisconsin thrive because rural areas produce high-value products and the state’s urban centers provide the infrastructure to distribute those products throughout the world. The role of government is to make sure both rural and urban areas are connected with transportation and communication infrastructure and to promote economic development through cluster-focused strategies.

There’s been an unquestionable shift in population and job growth to urban areas. Formerly empty sidewalks in downtown Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha and Green Bay are bustling with new residents strolling along new riverfront boardwalks and admiring the view from apartments reborn within early 20th century industrial buildings. At the same time, the Great Recession eliminated jobs in the rural agriculture and manufacturing industries that have not returned. The number of jobs available in Wisconsin’s most rural counties are still not back to pre-recession levels.

But the small communities within commuting distance of urban areas are seeing a rebirth. Recent research by the University of Wisconsin identified 240 places in Wisconsin where young adult populations are stable or growing. Many of those places would be considered “rural” or at least “small towns.”

Dr. Randy Stoecker and his team from the University of Wisconsin interviewed dozens of the young adults who were moving to, or staying in, those small communities, trying to identify the “secret sauce” drawing them to those places. What they found was that there is no secret sauce. Young families are choosing communities that have good schools, affordable and right-sized housing, and access to outdoor amenities.

Another key finding of Dr. Stoecker’s work is that the success of rural Wisconsin depends upon urban Wisconsin. Young people want to live in small communities where they can get to know their children’s teachers on a first-name basis. But at the same time, they want the comfort of knowing that the city of Appleton is just a short drive away.

Not all rural residents want to be commuters. While the number of new jobs created is higher in urban areas, the number of new businesses per-capita is highest in our smallest communities. New business startups also have a greater success rate in rural Wisconsin.

The rural-urban connection needs to be supported. For starters, the transportation system has to be up to the challenge of moving people and goods back and forth. Thanks to our farm-to-table history, Wisconsin has more miles of high-quality paved roads than any state our size. Like any other valuable asset, those streets have to be maintained and the state highway system needs to have adequate capacity to keep the economy flowing in both directions. Scrimping on maintenance and modernization hurts people living on both ends of the road.

Furthermore, high-speed internet service is as essential to commerce as electricity itself. Students attending those high-quality, small-town schools live in the same modern interconnected world as their urban peers. Business transactions flowing to and from small villages and large cities rely on their data having a path to reach their customers. Wisconsin is doing well in this regard, but like most rural states, we need to do better.

But the “live-here, work-there” phenomenon has created a new challenge that must be addressed by small communities. Like most rural places, Wisconsin’s small cities and villages often rely on volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel. For decades, local men and women answered the fire bells, whistles, pagers and, more recently, text notifications calling them to the station.

But today, the number of people who work where they live has declined. The daytime volunteer base of first responders is at a dangerously low level. A recent state legislative study committee was formed to identify solutions but failed. New ideas must be generated, because even growing small villages will be faced with this daytime dilemma.

A lot has been written about the political aspects of Wisconsin’s “rural-urban divide,” including a fascinating book by University of Wisconsin professor Kathy Cramer, who documented what can best be described as a rural chip on the shoulder that translates into our state’s current blue-here, red-there voting pattern. But, while our politics may resemble the Hatfields and McCoys, our economics looks more like Ben and Jerry’s.

Jerry_deschane.jpgAbout the Author: Jerry Deschane is the Executive Director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities and the Urban Alliance. He also serves as the Secretary of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities Mutual Insurance board of directors and is an ex officio member of the board of the Local Government Institute.