Just over 12 hours after Gov. Tony Evers gave his second State of the State address in Madison, several of his cabinet members met Thursday, Jan. 23, with regional economic, education, financial and social agency leaders at Nicolet College in Rhinelander to discuss ways to boost the economy of northern Wisconsin.
The primary mission of the trip was to explain what Evers proposed in his Jan. 22 speech about pushing for nonpartisan redistricting of state election maps, help for the dairy industry and further aiding economic development in rural areas of the state. At the same time, it allowed people on the ground locally to tell the Madison officials what the Northwoods really needs to help its growth.
Among those who made the stop at Nicolet College as part of a two-city tour including an afternoon stop in Superior were Department of Administration (DOA) Secretary Joel Brennan, DOA director for business and rural development Brad Pfaff, Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) Secretary Kathy Blumenfeld and Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) Secretary Mary Kolar.
Brennan said everyone in the state delegation will be very involved in rural economic development through a new Office of Rural Prosperity.
“That office is really going to be about issues surrounding health care, home ownership and housing, transportation, all the little nuts and bolts involved,” Brennan said.
During the introductions, several issues were brought up by various stakeholders at the table, he added, noting everyone had a regional approach to solving problems facing entrepreneurs and business start-ups.
“When it comes to the workforce challenges, you are grow your own. And you guys are an example where you have a number of people who have joined here within the last several months who are people who are from here and were able to keep here by giving you economic opportunities,” Brennan said. “That’s what the whole state needs to be about, and that’s kind of the underlining message that the governor has had since he started on day 1.”
He noted the area is facing demographic challenges “that aren’t going away” and emphasis needs to be on encouraging and nurturing people already living in the area to be able to start a business.
Brennan said the state’s agriculture industry is in crisis, with an average of two family farms going under every day. Evers called for a nonpartisan push for solutions in his message on Jan. 22, and Brennan said some of the collaborative efforts being used in the Northwoods might work in that regard.
‘Put our money where our mouth is’
Also mentioned as receiving a renewed push from the state was broadband expansion and development, which came up repeatedly throughout the discussion.
“To give you an example of how we’re trying to put our money where our mouth is with broadband, in the budget that passed last summer, it was $48 million over the biennium — $24 million in the first year and roughly $24 in the second year — for broadband in the state,” Brennan said. “And the Public Service Commission took applications for the first $24 million and had about 140 applications for about $50 million worth of work.”
A robust broadband infrastructure is “a pillar of economic development,” he added.
“I think that is something that this part of the state can help us with and make sure we’re really doing right ensuring that gets out to wherever it’s needed,” Brennan said.
Earlier, Brittany Beyer, executive director of Grow North Economic Development Corporation, said it was heartening to see the secretaries of the departments represented come together with regional representatives.
“This is the second time I’ve seen that,” Beyer said. “I’m really excited about the Office of Rural Prosperity, we need to make sure that some of the resources come to the rural communities.”
She said what area employers are seeing in the current period of low unemployment is a skills gap.
“That is a really important thing that gets heard in the capital because we do need assistance in creating and promoting the different ways you can help businesses provide the upscaling in training within their businesses,” Beyer said. “In a way that is not costly for themselves (businesses).”
A shortage of quality housing, from single family homes to apartment complexes, is making it harder for potential businesses to anticipate where their workers will live, she added, noting that if there was a way the state could assist local municipalities in this regard, that would help.
Beyer also noted that a lot of what ails the Northwoods are interconnected, such as school funding.
Melinda Childs, community cultural development director at ArtStart, told the secretaries she will be working with Nicolet College on a new program “to work on economic development through cultural avenues.”
“That means making everything from making more exciting things happening here, and we want to help with entrepreneurial support for creatives,” Childs said. “This is a really strong economic development piece in terms of workforce development and creating a community that is welcoming and also supporting artists.”
She also mentioned the Project North Festival had its inaugural run this past fall. The event, a celebration of arts and live music with an emphasis on sustainable living, is an example of an unusual approach to economic development, she said.
“I like to say you can connect everything to the arts,” Childs added. “It’s a great tool that is at everyone’s disposal. And we like to collaborate with other agencies, as well.”
Beyer pointed out that agriculture is a broad category, and in the Northwoods, that means timber.
“It is a renewable resource that is abundant up here and it is important to our economy here,” Beyer said.
She also noted something as simple as a lack of child care services can be a factor holding back economic development.
“Every community has had a major child care provider close, and it’s putting a strain on the system,” Beyer said. “And it’s really because the financial margins are so thin and it’s part of regulation, but we can’t get to economies of scale inside of that.”
Beyer also noted she is hearing that the Department of Public Instruction may be making tweaks to 4K in the state to see if this will help in the child care system. There is also a concern the shortage of child care may prevent some manufacturers from looking at moving into this area.
Brennan replied that the state received a $10 million federal grant to study ways to expand child care and there may be other federal resources that can be tapped.
“Wisconsin does not always get our fair share. We’re humble people as a state, but we ought to be getting whatever we can from the federal government,” Brennan said.
By working collaboratively, regional stakeholders are learning how to communicate better with Madison “so that we can build that support,” Beyer added, noting another thing that should be encouraged more is making sure the Northwoods experiences a “boomerang effect,” where people who leave the area for their education have an area worth returning to.
“So people can go as far as they need to, but welcome back,” Beyer said, adding this is a message the whole state should be repeating.
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at [email protected].