Summer 2018

On Henry Mall

Illustration by Danielle Lamberson Philipp

Early this year, Wisconsin’s economic development agency launched an ad campaign to persuade young professionals to ditch Chicago and head north to pursue their careers. The campaign was pegged as one way to address an ongoing shortage of young, talented workers in the state. Answers for the growing problem haven’t come easy, but it turns out we might not have to look very far to find them.

A recent study by researchers at CALS and UW-Extension explored rural communities in Wisconsin that are already maintaining or increasing their number of young adult residents aged 20 to 39. Their goal was to find out what factors accounted for success in these unique cities and villages.

Although statistics are abundant for counties, the researchers chose a smaller unit of analysis. “People don’t move to counties, people move to communities,” says Randy Stoecker, professor of community and environmental sociology and the study’s lead investigator. “If we’re going to answer the questions, the data had to be at the community level.”

The 12 case study communities — Delavan, West Bend, Omro, De Pere, Black Creek, Plover, Hayward, Somerset, New Richmond, Onalaska, Brooklyn, and Evansville — were chosen for their diversity 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 that helped guide the research.

The researchers conducted extensive qualitative analysis and interviews in each community. What they discovered were subtle variations on one consistent message. “It was always about proximity to cities, and about housing, schools, and outdoor amenities,” says Stoecker, who has a joint appointment at UW Cooperative Extension’s Center for Community and Economic Development.

More specifically, the young adults included in the study were attracted to rural communities with high-quality schools that also serve as community and cultural centers; affordable housing with a mix of housing types suitable for the different life stages of residents; outdoor recreational opportunities, including “silent sports” such as skiing and hiking; and local gathering spots and family spaces such as coffee shops, swimming pools, and restaurants.

They also looked for convenient access to larger cities, leading Stoecker and colleagues to conclude that communities must be seen in the context of their regional centers. In particular, proximity to a city or an interstate highway was critical. “We found that people are looking for a nearby employment center that includes high-end, professional employment,” he says. “They look for amenities in these regional centers: entertainment, movies, art, theater, high-end restaurants, and spectator sports.”

To move forward, communities around the state might adapt the lessons of these case studies, Stoecker says. “Do a dozen or two dozen interviews to learn about young people in the community, what keeps them, what attracts them,” he says. “It’s not expensive or super time-consuming. Then start thinking about how you might leverage that knowledge.”

This study was funded by a Hatch Act grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Co-principal investigators include (from UW–Madison) Katherine Curtis, associate professor of community and environmental sociology, and (from UW Cooperative Extension) Matt Calvert, professor of youth development, and Allyson Watson, communities extension educator for Outagamie County. To read a full report of the study, visit

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