By BF Staff
In recent decades, many local and regional economies across the United States have transformed with the rise of emerging industries — coupled with the decline of traditional sectors that have been the lifeblood of growth for many years. Post-pandemic shifts have also had well-documented impacts on the economy, and the workforce that support it. Businesses, government, and economic development groups have responded to such changes with varying levels of success and innovation. In northern Wisconsin, a three-pronged approach has brought a resurgence of economic growth in recent years. Four counties on this state’s northern border, for instance, have made population gains even as the long-standing mining and lumber industries there have declined. A focus on tourism and outdoor recreation assets, prioritizing business and workforce needs, especially “Main Street” establishments, and investment in infrastructure, including broadband, are the trifecta that’s working for Wisconsin in 2023.
The Great Outdoors As Economic Engine
Northern Wisconsin is known for its dense forests, rocky outcroppings, stunning waterfalls, and pristine lakes. Hundreds of miles of nature and parks make for extensive outdoor recreation there, which includes about 50 miles of the North Country National Scenic Trail that traverses through the ancient Penokee Range.
In recent years, the economy has spiked in northern Wisconsin, and throughout the state, through drivers like tourism and outdoor recreation. The outdoors is consistently a top reason why people choose to visit Wisconsin, according to the state; in 2021, outdoor recreation contributed $8.7 billion in Wisconsin’s GDP. Tourism generated $23.7 billion in total economic impact in Wisconsin in 2022.
Recognizing the significance of tourism and outdoor recreation to economic development, in 2019, the state invested in creating an Office of Outdoor Recreation to provide a central resource to connect and support the diverse stakeholders that depend on the outdoors. More residents are demanding that communities invest and maintain parks and trials as remote work has become mainstream and has them to be more selective about where they choose to live.
As a result of the pandemic, many more people can work remotely and they’re choosing to work where they play. The northern regions of Wisconsin offer a wide variety of outdoor recreation that includes biking, hiking, and snowmobiling. People who were once tourists are purchasing homes and becoming full-time or part-time residents. And this has meant more foot traffic, so putting resources into maintaining and upkeeping outdoor recreation is essential to growth and continued attraction for the state.
Helping these areas thrive through tourism has been aided in part due to federal and state investments, but also local contributions. One example: Volunteer snowmobile clubs maintain 25,000 miles of trails in the winter — the most snowmobile trials of any state in the nation. And the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has grant funding available to local clubs to help reimburse a portion of the costs they incur for grooming trails.
Expanding Broadband Access
Another key investment has been broadband expansion. “Just in the last year, there has been $20 million in grants invested in broadband expansion in our region, said Barb LaMue, President & CEO of New North, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, regional marketing and economic development group focused on the 18 counties of northeast Wisconsin. “These improvements have provided people the ability to obtain internet access in more remote locations which retain and attract a workforce in rural parts of the state,” continued LaMue. A movement seen across the U.S., it’s expected that increasing broadband access will play a major role in attracting businesses, entrepreneurs, and future residents.
As tourism in these areas increases and population rises, existing businesses are expanding and more storefronts are opening, making talent attraction another important factor.
One significant success that combines tourism and talent attraction came from a partnership of the Wisconsin Office of Outdoor Recreation with Travel Wisconsin and Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). They collaborated to create a workforce attraction tool as a resource for businesses looking to recruit workers to Wisconsin. Because outdoor recreation is core to the lifestyle in the state, it has helped the outdoor industry flourish and continues to be an attractive place to grow an outdoor business.
Funding Economic Transformation
Many federal and state grants have been key to Wisconsin’s tourism, population, and business endeavors described in this article. A sampling of these:
- WEDC Mainstreet Bounceback grants provided up to $10,000 to small businesses that were opening or expanding. So far, 132 businesses in the five Wisconsin bordering counties have received Mainstreet Bounceback grants, ranging from nail salons to bookstores, tackle shops, tattoo parlors, clothing boutiques, and others.
- The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is a federal fund that protects the nation’s lands and waters and provides recreational opportunities to enjoy them. Every county in Wisconsin has had a project funded by LWCF.
- The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program can be used to match LWCF funds to preserve Wisconsin lands and waters and provide recreational opportunities. To date, Knowles-Nelson has invested $1.3 billion in projects across the state. 99% of Wisconsin residents are within five miles of a project that received Knowles-Nelson funding.
- Alternative transportation grants from US DOT and WisDOT for pedestrian infrastructure as well as bike lanes and trails.
In the face of economic transformation through dwindling traditional industries along with post-pandemic shifts, northern Wisconsin stakeholders have focused resources on the tourism industry, invested in the infrastructure needed to support that growing industry, and prioritized helping businesses through the use of one-time COVID federal funds. The resulting population growth in this state is one story of how small towns and how other regions can attract visitors, residents, and businesses to rejuvenate and diversify their own economic growth.
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