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GREEN LAKE – What attracts young adults, particularly professionals, to communities that are considered to be in Wisconsin's rural areas? Which communities in the state are faring well on that point?

The answers to those questions are being pursued in a two-year project undertaken by the University of Wisconsin Extension Service (UWEX). In a somewhat novel format, the project served as the topic for the keynote presentation at the 25th anniversary Rural Summit sponsored by the Wisconsin Rural Partners.

Sharing in the presentation, which was titled “Gaining and Retaining Young Adults in Wisconsin,” were UWEX youth development specialist Matt Calvert, UWEX community and environmental sociologist Randy Stoecker, and research team leader and graduate student Amanda Hoffman. The project, which was financed by a federal Hatch grant, is due for completion this year.

Setting the groundwork

Having a community that's “an attractive and sustainable place” is what's likely to not only retain young people who grew up there but also to bring draw others from elsewhere, Calvert observed. Making that happen can start by engaging with young people before they graduate from high school, he suggested.

There are many ways to have young people make a connection to a community and to get them “invested in it,” Calvert said. “This will show them that they are valued and make them more likely to return there.”

Using the existing community assets can be a way to build that connection, Calvert said. He mentioned how Hurley, in far northern Wisconsin, involved high school students in a project to describe and promote the many waterfalls in the immediate area. He also cited opportunities to have young people serve as advisors to local government boards.

Tracking success

In describing how the Wisconsin communities which are part of the research were selected, Stoecker remarked that “I think in reverse a lot.” Applying that approach to the current project, he pointed out that economic, social, and other category statistics are most often compiled at county levels.

From his UWEX affiliation, Stoecker also realized that its focus is on programs but not much on a followup to track the results. His input on the project helped to direct it toward individual communities rather than counties and to probe for examples of success on gaining or maintaining their share of young adults.

Selection process

The starting point for the project was a review of the census data from 1990, 2000, and 2010 to identify the percentage of residents age 20 to 39 in Wisconsin's approximately 1,800 municipalities and towns, Stoecker noted. Those with colleges, universities, prisons, or military installations were immediately eliminated because of the built-in distortions in the statistics, he explained.

Communities which remained on the list were placed in 11 geographical regions of the state. Within those groupings, 20 each per region were identified as being “gainers” or “maintainers” for their portion of young adult populations.

A gainer had an absolute increase in young adults from 1990 to 2010 while a maintainer had an increase in percentage of young adults during those 20 years. Of the 20 identified on the basis of those two criteria in each of the 11 regions, 118 were found to be overlappers and 130 were considered for the final case studies.

With an eye on geographical balance, those which made the final cut and were visited as potential candidates for in-depth research were De Pere, Black Creek, Omro, West Bend, Delavan, Walworth, Plover, Lac du Flambeau, Hayward, Evansville, Wauzeka, Somerset, Onalaska, New Richmond, and Brooklyn.

Stoecker noted that very few communities north of Highway 8 had met the basic qualifications on the state-wide inventory. He also cited the somewhat surprising finding in the census data that communities in Milwaukee County and the county as a whole had the greatest losses in young adults from 1990 to 2010.

On-site research

It was at this point that Hoffman became greatly involved in the project, starting with a request to county-based UWEX educators who were asked to provide leads on whom to speak to about the successful local results regarding the presence of young adults. The people contacted included business owners, civic leaders, member of the clergy, librarians, museum and recreation department directors, government officials, teachers, and members of the arts community, she indicated. She also praised the cooperation of the chambers of commerce.

In her group or one-on-one contacts, Hoffman asked about recruiting methods for 20 to 39 year-olds, what the shopping and entertainment choices are, what other activities are offered, and “why the young adults come and stay.” Instead of finding any single factor, she said “every study is different.”

Hoffman reported that full data has been collected for Brooklyn, Evansville, West Bend and Hayward while the research has been done in part for Black Creek, De Pere, New Richmond, Omro, and Wauzeka. Delavan and Walworth were chosen for their ethnic diversity, she noted.

Early observations

Stoecker and Hoffman noted that the top ranking communities were either clustered around watersheds, were on or very near to main transportation routes, or were fairly close to a major metropolitan area. For Brooklyn, on the border of Dane and Green counties with a population of 1,500, the attraction is the 20-minute drive from the Madison metropolitan area. Similarly, Hayward (population of 2,000) is a one hour drive from Duluth, MN while West Bend (population of 30,000) is 45 minutes from the Milwaukee metropolitan area.

Among other particular points that Hoffman found were the beneficial influences of the United Way and a community volunteer center in West Bend and the availability of two-story and former farm family houses as alternatives to new houses with manicured lawns in the Black Creek area. In the 15 to 30 interviews in each community, she noted that factors frequently mentioned were affordable housing, good schools and restaurants, a place to raise a family, employment opportunities, and access to parks and pools. Those reasons were cited by both the young adults who stayed in their home community and by those who moved in, she added.

Project conclusions

Following the completion of the on-site case work in June, an analysis will be provided and a final report will be released, Hoffman indicated. With proper attention to protocol and ethics, Stoecker said the intent is to share the “many rich stories” with “those want to learn.”

Stoecker announced that the northern Wisconsin communities of Shell Lake, Ladysmith, and Hurley have arranged to obtain presentations on the project. His contact information is rstoecker@wisc.edu.

Calvert reported that the UWEX has conducted a study of Hurley High School graduates for 10 years, finding “real differences” on the choice of staying in the community or leaving. He noted that those who chose to stay like the area's outdoor attractions and don't mind coping with up 150 inches of snow per year.

Communities wanting to examine the results of the project should not think about attracting young adults as such because “that is unrealistic,” Hoffman warned. “A heavy emphasis on growth can be counterproductive.”

Persons interested in the slides accompanying the keynote presentation can visit the wirural.org website and then click on the Blog.

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