Rural communities have long lamented the steady loss of young people to more heavily populated areas offering higher-paying jobs, career advancement and more amenities such as shopping and entertainment. Small towns have watched with dismay as their best and brightest young people have left for good in search of more promising opportunities elsewhere. This trend is known as the “brain drain.”
On a broader scale, an advertising campaign launched last month by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. is trying to lure millennials across the border from urban areas such as Chicago, hoping to change their perception that America’s Dairyland is little more than beer and cheese through a blitz targeting social media, trains, bars and health clubs.
But some Wisconsin communities, it turns out, are successfully maintaining or even increasing the number of young adults, according to a new study by UW-Madison researchers. “Gaining and Maintaining Young People in Wisconsin Communities” explored a dozen communities that have somehow managed to keep — and even attract — this highly sought-after demographic.
The study sought to find smaller and more rural places that have actually grown their young adult population and figure out what might account for their success, said principal investigator Randy Stoecker, a UW-Madison professor of community and environmental sociology and UW-Extension community development specialist.
In municipalities from Hayward to Delavan and from Somerset to De Pere, researchers spoke with community leaders. They found subtle variations on one consistent message: “It was always about proximity to cities and about housing, schools and outdoor amenities.”
The fundamental results might seem contradictory, according to Stoecker. “People in these large rural communities want cities, but they don’t, which is why they want to be within commuting distance. It was intriguing, but maybe the rural-urban connection is less a paradox than a symbiosis. To have rural development happen in the way people want it to happen may depend on urban development that’s within commuting range.”
The project began more than two years ago by identifying communities that were succeeding in maintaining and/or gaining adults ages 20 to 39. While there are ample statistics for counties, researchers zeroed in on communities.
“People don’t move to counties; people move to communities,” Stoecker says.
Study communities included Delavan, West Bend, Omro, De Pere, Black Creek, Plover, Hayward, Somerset, New Richmond, Onalaska, Brooklyn and Evansville and were chosen to be as diverse as possible in terms of location, income and economic structure. With advice from local UW-Extension educators, the team identified a “core group” of leaders in each community who helped guide the research.
The study was unusual for its focus on whole communities rather than single programs and for looking at strengths — positive forms of community development likely to attract and retain young adults — rather than weaknesses, or why a community might be losing young adults.
Researchers concluded that communities must be viewed in the context of their regional centers (their proximity to a city or interstate highway). People are looking for a nearby employment center that includes high-end, professional employment as well as amenities like art, theater, high-end restaurants and spectator sports. Another factor is shopping, not just Walmart and Target but a good variety.
For these reasons, Stoecker says, “it’s not surprising that these communities are all close to a city or an interstate or both.” Regional centers included smaller cities like La Crosse and Eau Claire but also major metro areas like Milwaukee and the Twin Cities. A nearby city gives the smaller community the best of both worlds.
“If they grew too much, they would lose what made the community valuable to them,” Stoecker said. “Many people in small towns want access to the city, but they don’t want the city in their small town.”
Schools are, not surprisingly, critical to community success, but it wasn’t just about test scores. Families want a school that feels like a community space, “where every teacher knows every parent and every child” and where community members are welcome. The case studies also found that young adults value year-round outdoor activities. Hayward, home of the American Birkenbeiner ski race, has a strong culture for this.
Almost across the board, community members were surprised to find that they lived in a place that was gaining or maintaining young adults, Stoecker said. “They had bought into the dominant narrative, that young people are leaving Wisconsin, and were surprised to learn that theirs was a community that young people seem to be attracted to.”
It’s no secret that many small-town downtown areas throughout the state have been dying a slow, gradual death. Store fronts have been shuttered, and motorists just pass through on the way to spending their dollars elsewhere. Oftentimes, the tavern is the only place in town showing any signs of life. This has been a disheartening trend.
But maybe some visionary local leaders can learn a few lessons from these case studies. Talk to young people in your community — why do they stay? Why have their friends left? Consider how to leverage that knowledge and use it to the community’s advantage.
To view the full UW report, visit https://apl.wisc.edu/youngadults.