map showing location of Onalaska Municipality City of Onalaska
County La Crosse
Year Incorporated 1851
Population and Growth
Population (2014 if available, otherwise 2010, indicate) 17,736 (2010)
WI Workforce Development Region 9
Young Adult Gaining Measure 14% (WI median is -22%)
Young Adult Maintaining Measure 29% (WI median is 24%)
Social/Demographic Data
Racial stats, 2010 Census 89.8% White (Non-Hispanic)
0.9% White (Hispanic)
1.1% African American
0.3% American Indian or Alaska Native
5.7% Asian
0.5% Other
1.7% Two or More Races
Mean Income $80,777 (2015)
Median Income $53,737 (2015)
Year of Latest Comprehensive Development Plan 2015
Year and Amount of Last Referendum Passed (2014) $28.6 million
Notes Onalaska is served by the School District of Onalaska.
Type Name Grades Served Private/Public
Elementary Eagle Bluff Elementary School Pre-K – 5 Public
Irving Pertzsch Elementary School Pre-K – 5 Public
Northern Hills Elementary School Pre-K – 5 Public
St. Paul's Lutheran School K-8 Private
St. Patrick's Grade School Pre-K – 6 Private
Middle Onalaska Middle School 6-8 Public
St. Paul's Lutheran School K-8 Private
High Onalaska High School 9-12 Public
Luther High School 9-12 Private

Conducting the Case Study in Onalaska

We conducted the Onalaska case study by having a researcher visit the area for a week in June of 2017. The following points briefly review how we developed our interview guide and interview contacts:

  1. Network with Interested Individuals:

    Our research team had connected with Chin-Chin Minnear from the 7 Rivers Alliance, "the economic development membership organization for the Upper Mississippi Region" ( She attended the Wisconsin Rural Summit in 2017, saw our team's presentation on the project, and noted her interest in the project. Our research team contacted her a few weeks later to invite her to help guide the study.

  2. Connect to University of Wisconsin-Extension:

    We reached out to UW-Extension in La Crosse County, requesting recommendations for community leaders who might be interested in our project. Team member and UW-Extension educator Allyson Watson recommended that we reach out to Karl Green of UW-Extension in La Crosse County.

  3. Connect to Onalaska Leaders:

    Mr. Green recommended a number of business leaders to reach out to, but we were unable to recruit anyone to provide feedback on shaping the interview guide.

  4. Develop Interview Guide and Contact List:

    Mr. Green and Ms. Minnear provided feedback over email on what questions they wanted to see on the interview guide for Onalaska. They both also refereed us to individuals who lived or worked in Onalaska. We invited these contacts to interviews, or to provide recommendations for others we should invite to interviews.

  5. Conduct Interviews:

    Amanda Hoffman interviewed 17 people who we reached through core group references, and our own search for community members.

  6. Present and Revise Report:

    Amanda analyzed and summarized the results of the interviews, presented them to the core group, and revised the report based on their recommendations.

Onalaska Interview Guide
  1. How old are you?
  2. How long have you lived here
  3. Why did you move here?
  4. Do you rent or own your home
  5. Do members of your extended family live in this community or in a nearby community?
Around the Community
  1. Are outdoor activities important here?
  2. What do you think of shopping opportunities around here? Farmers' market?
  3. What kind of things to do you leave the community for?
  1. How do you feel about population growth of young adults here?
  2. What strategies or factors that attract young adults to where you live are you aware of? Why do people move here?
  3. Why do people stay here?
  4. What would you say to young adult thinking of moving here?
People in the Community
  1. What do young adults do for entertainment around here?
  2. How do people here get around? Drive, walk, bike, carpool, public transport?
  3. Where do young adults who live around here work?
Life Satisfaction and Community
  1. Is your life here different than you thought it would be?
    Follow-up: What would influence you to stay or leave?
  2. How do you feel about your quality of life where you live?
    Follow-up: Economically speaking?
  3. What do you need from your community? Who contributes to your community?

Results for Onalaska

While the identities of the 17 interview participants remain confidential, a few key characteristics may prove useful to readers in their analysis of these findings.

Jobs and Cost of Living

For young adults whose careers may not have yet taken off, both a desirable job with a decent starter salary, and a home in a place with an acceptable cost of living, are important variables. Fifteen out of the seventeen interview participants emphasized how life in and around Onalaska was financially sustainable. They referenced the importance of jobs and/or the low taxes and cost of living.

When asked about quality of life in financial terms, one person responded:


One of the most important parts of the cost of living, especially for young families, is availability and cost of housing.  When asked why they or others lived or stayed in Onalaska, Eleven participants emphasized the importance of housing availability, which they framed in financial terms. Four people specifically pointed to more affordable, better quality rentals than in La Crosse.

Six people noted how home ownership was more affordable in Onalaska, maybe even more affordable than renting, and that it was possible to buy more space and pay less in taxes.

And seven people referenced the importance of newer, higher-end but still affordable houses in Onalaska.

Proximity to the City

Many young adults find themselves in a kind of in-between life-stage, partly looking to settle down and partly still feeling energized by more urban experiences.  Thus, being close to a city is important to many young adults. Twelve out of the seventeen interview participants discussed the importance of Onalaska being near La Crosse but still separate from it.

Three of these participants referenced being near other communities in the area, for work or recreation.

The role of University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

Somewhat unexpectedly, we have been finding that students graduating from nearby colleges and universities want to stick around after graduation, but not necessarily in the same community as the university. Eight people talked about how people moved to Onalaska because they came to La Crosse for college, and then they wanted to stay. Some were drawn to Onalaska because they wanted to move on from the "college party scene." The story of students that graduated and stayed in the area points to the importance of having a young adult retention strategy that leverages the influx of young adults into the area.

Amenities and Growth

Part of young adults' desire to be near a city is to have access to its diverse amenities. But smaller places that reach a certain critical mass can provide some of those amenities locally without the other characteristics of urban places—congestion, density, and a sense of danger—that some young adults do not want to live in the midst of. Nine participants mentioned that people settle in Onalaska because of the way the community is growing and attracting amenities.

Five interview participants did mention, however, that while shopping was good in Onalaska, those interested in local business shopping needed to go to La Crosse.

Beauty and Recreation

Amenities are not just about the indoors—shopping, dining, entertainment. They are also about the outdoors, and outdoor amenities are important to young adults who are often quite physically active. Thirteen people discussed the importance of nearby natural beauty, parks, and outdoor recreation.

The Mississippi River, and Lake Onalaska created by the river, are very important to residents and to others, without the stress and conflicts that tourism can sometimes create.

In addition, biking, hiking, and winter skiing provide for all-season outdoor recreation.


One of the more unique qualities of Onalaska that we have not heard so much in other places is the presence of a health-oriented culture.Five interview participants referenced the importance of a local health-oriented culture, with health-sustaining activities, amenities like organic food and proximity to diverse health care services.

Community – Social and Physical

A sense of community was very important to our interview participants. Thirteen interviewees said that they, or others, lived in Onalaska because of the presence of a supportive community composed of friends or family and opportunities for socializing.

Not everyone's social needs are completely met, however, as discussed by two participants, though we don't know what would better meet their needs.

The sense of community in Onalaska also has visual, physical dimensions. Nine interview participants specifically praised Onalaska's comfortable, well-kept neighborhoods.

Sense of Family

Twelve out of seventeen participants referenced the importance of a sense of family and home. They said that they or others stayed in the area because they wanted to be near family, or start a family, and feel rooted. Many described Onalaska as having a family-oriented culture.

Work-life balance is important to people and at least one employer was praised for supporting that balance.

Small Town Sense and Benefits

While Onalaska is very close to La Crosse, sharing a border but with its main residential areas separated by a freeway, fourteen people discussed the importance of the community's small town vibe, six of whom also pointed to the importance of feeling at home, or feeling rooted.


Schools are one of the most common important infrastructure resources across all of our case study communities. Eight participants mentioned the role of the Onalaska school district in gaining and maintaining young families.

How Onalaska Compares to Similar Communities
Higher Education Institution Influences

Our case studies included three communities influenced by a university or college as well as a nearby larger city. De Pere, the home of St. Norbert College and very close to Green Bay, is a bit larger in population at nearly 24,000. Plover shares a partial border with Stevens Point (the home of UW-Stevens Point) and is somewhat smaller with a population a bit over 12,000. All three of these communities show an interesting mixture of traditional and progressive cultures. In Plover, sustainability and diversity are important ideas. In De Pere, historic preservation is important. And in Onalaska a health-oriented culture is important. But ideas like "family," and "small-town feel" are common across all our case study communities and also central to how interviewees think of these three places. All three of these places also attract their own college graduates as future residents. Plover and Onalaska in particular are interesting because of the graduates who have chosen to live near, but not in, the city of their alma mater. And in De Pere and Plover people seem to express a bit more comfort with more urban ideas like smaller lots.

Water Amenities

Another way to compare our case studies is by grouping those communities with important outdoor water-related amenities. Somerset, a small community in northwest Wisconsin, has the Apple River. West Bend, in east central Wisconsin, has the Milwaukee River. Delavan, in southeast Wisconsin, has Delavan Lake. Omro, north of West Bend, has the Fox River. While none of these are the mighty Mississippi, they all invoke a discussion of water-based recreation, even if it is just for a relaxing walk along its shores. Interestingly, Onalaska seems to stand out in people feeling happy about their access to water recreation resources without so many of the conflicts created by tourism (expressed in both Somerset and Delavan), or a feeling of less access than desired (expressed in Omro and West Bend).


One issue discussed in every community we studied was growth. In the more rural places such as Somerset and Omro, there were concerns that growth would threaten the small town feel, and people seemed comfortable with trading off a lack of amenities to preserve that small town feel. Those concerns were not as pronounced in places closer to cities like Onalaska, Plover, and De Pere.

So What?

Some of the results from our study may not be surprising to you. Many of the themes brought up by participants are indicative of a healthy, thriving community. While you may not be surprised to hear that a strong school system and proximity to another urban area for shopping and/or jobs are important to community members, it is important to remember that there are many communities that are struggling to retain their young adults due to a lack of these community amenities and attributes. We hope that the results of this case study affirm the good work being done in your own community while aiding others who will greatly value the observations and results gathered in your community.

Our research findings also hold some implications for Onalaska.

Successful Integration of Tourism

One of the most intriguing things about Onalaska is it's plentiful natural amenities that draw people from all over, and yet none of our interviewees mentioned frustration or conflicts with tourists. It is worth community leaders having further discussion to find out whether we simply talked to a select group of people or if tourism has become that comfortably integrated into the community. If they have achieved such successful integration, it would be worth figuring out how it was done.

An Older Identity

Another interesting aspect of Onalaska was that a surprising number of people in the interviews expressed skepticism that Onalaska's young adult population was growing. Most of them couldn't help but compare their community to La Crosse in that regard. There is a danger, if Onalaska holds an identity as a community lacking young adults, that it will be less attractive to young adults. Growing the young adult population further may call for making the existing population more visible through more activities and promotions.

A Lack of Identity?

So many people reference La Crosse for local shopping and local food, and sometimes it seems as if Onalaska is a classic "anywhere USA" suburb of chain retailers. It may be worth a community discussion about what kind of identity Onalaska wants to have, especially with its well-regarded schools and outdoor amenities. Can Onalaska develop its own Main Street in ways that might attract young adults the way that La Crosse seems able to?