Population diversity 'a game changer' in rural areas

Ray Mueller

GREEN LAKE – For a number of communities in Wisconsin and elsewhere, the ethnic and racial diversity that's occurring in their populations “is a game changer,” University of Wisconsin Extension Service community development specialist Kristin Runge told attendees at the 25th anniversary Rural Summit program sponsored by Wisconsin Rural Partners.

Kristin Runge

How to react in those situations was the topic of a session titled “Community Place Making/the Creative Rural Place” at the program. Accompanying presenter Todd Johnson, who is a land use and community development specialist with the Extension Service at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls, sketched how communities in the northern half of the state have approached that task.

As major changes take place in former predominant Caucasian communities, there will be a number of huge impacts, Runge pointed out. Many of the new residents are immigrants who obtained employment while others have relocated from metropolitan areas, she noted.

One of the obvious and profound effects is for schools, Runge observed. Should a reversal of the immigrant pattern suddenly occur, she reported that the superintendent in a Wisconsin school district with a population of 5,000 said one of its elementary schools would have to close as a result. She heard a similar comment from the administrator of a nursing home in a community of 5,000 residents.

Generational shifting

In addition to the changes in certain communities, Runge noted how generational shifts are taking place in the overall population. One of four United States residents is between age 23 to 40 today while the “boomer” group, age 53 to 69, has dropped to 23 percent of the nation's population, she pointed out. “Those are pretty stark numbers.”

Runge referred to a Mintel survey of 20,000 people in 2015 which showed that the younger generation is concerned about managing time better, addressing debt/credit concerns, hoping to buy big ticket items, looking for affordable housing and attractive rental properties, and seeking support from financial institutions in the wake of the most recent recession.

Five-year goals identified by those surveyed (age 20 to 37) include a job change or promotion, returning to school, or owning a business, Runge stated. To make this happen in many cases would require involvement with chambers of commerce, participation in a mentorship program, or affiliation with a Jaycee chapter, Young Professionals group, trade association, union, or cooperative, she suggested.

Family interests

Within families, the goals identified in the Mintel survey are to improve relationships with parents but only 25 percent mentioned having a child in the next five years. For those who have a child, the cited needs were day care and services on non-school days if grandparents or other close relatives aren't available to help.

Related effects that Runge described as “unique to a generation” are later average marriage ages (29 for men and 26 for women), less children but more children outside of marriage, a relatively low income status at ages 25 to 30, less likely to change a job compared to the previous GenX group (age 41 to 52), more student debt, less investment in the stock market, and the prospect of not retiring until age 73.

Other social traits are more inter-racial marriages, an increase in living together before marriage, a higher number of single women, and couples of the same sex raising children, Runge observed. Finally, she remarked, rural communities should enjoy benefits from the trend to the open-mindedness, cosmopolitan outlook, and sophistication that characterizes today's youngest segment of today's adult age population.

Place instead of space

In dealing with the changes that Runge described, Todd Johnson said the key to doing so successfully is to “create relationships for occupying a place, not a space” in order to “create a community vitality in a geographic area.”

Todd Johnson

Focus on common interests rather than demographics, Johnson advised. It's important to identify them and strive for widespread community involvement, he stated. “Create excitement about changes.”

Achieving direct public participation should stand in contrast with the formal plans adopted by units of government that often do little more than fill shelves instead of being implemented, Johnson observed. He suggested to the program attendees that many of them might be familiar with that latter situation.

Practical applications

In recent years, Johnson and colleagues have been involved in community planning and design ventures in rural Wisconsin and Minnesota. He said most of the requests for guidance come from within the Extension Service and that $5,000 in start-up funding is required for obtaining input from up to 20 professionals on the intended projects.

A project at Baileys Harbor in Door County had great participation, Johnson reported. He said 18 teams were formed, that local residents provided sketched images on ideas for park space, a community center, and a recycling station, and that one event drew a crowd of 180 in the community of just over 1,000 residents.

In Iron County, a trailheads project was set up to involve students from Hurley High School, Johnson noted. At the Westside elementary school in River Falls, students and the school staff are providing the input for obtaining educational value from the natural resources on the school property and for the playground.