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Rural population on the rise in state
Report: Wisconsin bests neighboring states
Trend line going up

WISCONSIN - Wisconsin’s “gone country.”

So concludes a new study from Wisconsin Policy Forum, a non-partisan research organization that provides deep dives on contemporary issues.

Rural counties in Wisconsin grew an average of 5.1 percent over the past 20 years—compared to a 1.1 percent decline across the Midwest generally. That’s good news for the state’s rural economies, where population growth fires up spending and taxes.

But not everyone is in on the bonanza. Turns out most of the growth is being driven by a handful of counties, all of them known for their beauty and outdoor recreational amenities.

Great news for Boscobel, right? Not so much. In Grant County, population is flat—neither growing nor shrinking. Crawford and Richland are actually declining.

Only Trempeauleau and Vernon represent the “Driftless Region” in the top 10 growing rural counties.

“Frankly, I was a little surprised that southwestern Wisconsin wasn’t adding population,” said Mark Sommerhauser, who conducted the study, wrote the report, and also serves as communications director for the Forum. “We were just out canoeing on the Kickapoo last summer. It’s a beautiful part of the state.”

Lake country

Looks definitely matter: Of the top ten growing rural counties, three border Lake Superior or Michigan, and five are northern counties with plenty of lakes.

“In the northern part of the state, there’s a stark difference between counties that have lakes, and those that don’t,” said Sommerhouser.

One theory, he said, is that city folk who want to party in northern Wisconsin tend to own a cabin. “They already have one leg in the door,” explained Sommerhouser. “It might not be as much of a leap to move there full time.”

On the other hand, once you’re “Up North,” you’re not going to drive to Chicago to take in a show.

“Your region is much better located than some of these fast-growing counties that just don’t have proximity to anything else,” he said.

Other growth factors

Turns out it’s more than a beauty contest.

Take the City of Viroqua: located far from the region’s many rivers on ridge-top prairie, the town has none of the natural beauty of Boscobel. Viroqua’s scant few blocks of historic downtown is unimpressive compared to, say, Richland Center.

But as the county seat of fast-growing Vernon County, it’s the nexus of activity for that region.

Kristina Dollhausen is the Economic Development and Tourism Coordinator for Vernon County. She points to a number of factors that set the county apart from its neighbors. Among them are amenities like the county’s park system, as well as cultural factors like Viroqua’s many musical events and its well-known restaurants and food culture.

“I grew up in McGregor,” Dollhausen said. “Every time I go back there, I feel like I don’t have any place to eat. In Viroqua, you can get the food you want.”

The variety of school options, which includes a public Montessori school, and private Waldorf and Christian choices, is another factor, according to Dollhausen.

Finally, access to high-speed internet has been a key driver. “Vernon Communications has made an extra effort to connect the whole county. Our coverage is way better than in Crawford County. People can live where they want and work the job they want. If I want to live in Vernon County and work my big city job from home, I can.”

Downsides, too

Along with the benefits to the local economy, population growth can bring changes, and not always for the better.

Observers increasingly point to “rural gentrification” as a problem. The same folks who bring their big city job to the country drive up housing costs, outbid local families on real estate, and object to the traditional blue-collar industries that have kept rural economies running in the past.

“Survival for working-class people once meant logging or agriculture,” writes Ryanne Pilgeram, a sociologist at the University of Idaho who studies rural gentrification in the Western United States. “Now that means building homes or waiting tables and being grateful that you have a house to build or table to wait on.”

Vernon County is attempting to solve the housing crunch with new apartments and condos, including new construction in Viroqua and Viola, which straddles the county line with Richland.

Crawford County is taking steps to improve the local economy through a tech ed center in Prairie du Chien, reports Carol Roth, executive director of Driftless Development, a business development service that operates out of Prairie.

“In years past, probably about 75 percent of high school students went on to a four-year college and 25 percent did not. That’s totally flipped today,” Roth said. “We want students in high school to develop those skills, or adults to ‘upskill’ if they want a better job.”

In other words, in-migration from other parts of the state is only part of the story. Another important factor, according to Roth, comes from within. “When you create a workforce that can make a living wage and who can participate in the economy, that’s part of the story.”

Wait for it…

If it’s true that population growth follows tourism, then Crawford County is next, according to Roth.

“Our numbers are way up from 2022,” she said.

She cites childcare, housing, and broadband service as factors that are slowly becoming more favorable for population growth.

She also says Crawford County needs a more visible promotion.

“When I think about Vernon County, they’ve been really good about promoting themselves for a long time. Sometimes we don’t toot our own horn. We’re kind of a best kept secret,” she said. “What I do know is that once people find us, they know how wonderful it is here, and they come back.