|Municipality||City of Onalaska|
|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%)|
|Racial stats, 2010 Census||
89.8% White (Non-Hispanic)
0.9% White (Hispanic)
1.1% African American
0.3% American Indian or Alaska Native
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.|
|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:
- 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" (7riversalliance.org). 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Conduct Interviews:
Amanda Hoffman interviewed 17 people who we reached through core group references, and our own search for community members.
- 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
- How old are you?
- How long have you lived here
- Why did you move here?
- Do you rent or own your home
- Do members of your extended family live in this community or in a nearby community?
Around the Community
- Are outdoor activities important here?
- What do you think of shopping opportunities around here? Farmers' market?
- What kind of things to do you leave the community for?
- How do you feel about population growth of young adults here?
- What strategies or factors that attract young adults to where you live are you aware of? Why do people move here?
- Why do people stay here?
- What would you say to young adult thinking of moving here?
People in the Community
- What do young adults do for entertainment around here?
- How do people here get around? Drive, walk, bike, carpool, public transport?
- Where do young adults who live around here work?
Life Satisfaction and Community
- Is your life here different than you thought it would be?
Follow-up: What would influence you to stay or leave?
- How do you feel about your quality of life where you live?
Follow-up: Economically speaking?
- 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.
- Participants ranged in age from the mid-20s to the mid-40s. Seven people were 20-29, Seven were 30-39, and three were 40-49.
- Six participants had lived in the community for fewer than five years; five had lived there for five to nine years, two from 20-29 years, and 1 person grew up in Onalaska. One person grew up in Onalaska but now lived in La Crosse, and two others lived in La Crosse but had close knowledge of Onalaska through work.
- Eleven people were employed in Onalaska, one was a business owner there, one was employed in La Crosse, and two were employed elsewhere. Two were full-time parents.
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.
- "The taxes are lower in Onalaska than in La Crosse. There's a lot of people that commute in (to La Crosse)."
- "An employment opportunity here [in Onalaska]... that's how I ended up specifically in Onalaska."
- "I didn't have a preconceived notion...I was just coming to do the job I wanted to do."
When asked about quality of life in financial terms, one person responded:
- "You can have the toys that you want...campers, RVs, boats, snowmobiles...motorcycles are pretty popular too."
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.
- "I found that renting outside of the city is cheaper than renting in the city...there's not a lot of nice rental opportunities... [there are] a lot of older homes, or older apartment complexes. Onalaska and Holmen, they have nicer places you can rent."
- "For the money, you get the same place, but a little more updated, a little more modern...a little bit more room. Low-end places jack up the prices [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.
- "You pay less taxes for a full acre in Onalaska...[there's] more space and less taxes."
- "I think the housing is really affordable. It's cheaper to buy here than it is to rent."
And seven people referenced the importance of newer, higher-end but still affordable houses in Onalaska.
- "There are not a ton of homes in the less than 100k range. But if you are making decent money, the housing market in Onalaska is hot."
- "Because the taxes are substantially less than La Crosse, you get more bang for your buck. La Crosse is more fixer uppers. In Onalaska you get a newer home."
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.
- "While I don't mind having to drive somewhere, it's nice having everything close by."
- "It's close to stuff if you want to go do stuff. It's not far from shopping, or fun stuff to do. It's quieter than La Crosse...it's very relaxed."
Three of these participants referenced being near other communities in the area, for work or recreation.
- People boat on the river, spend the whole weekend...more out on French island- there's lots of places you can rent space...it takes ten minutes."
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.
- "I love the environment here so I decided to transfer here in 2008."
- "I went to college at UW-La Crosse, and then never left."
- "I went to UW-La Crosse. I moved away because I wanted to get away from the college scene."
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.
- "The town is doing a pretty good job of growth, doing what they do to build things, bringing in different stores and things. I don't know how they do it."
- "It's big enough to have everything you need but it's not too big that you have a four lane highway going through the center of it like Rochester."
- "I just need the community to keep doing what they're doing...growth...expansion...keep employers happy...think of stuff before it becomes an issue."
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.
- "what you don't have is more localized shopping...that's more in La Crosse."
- "La Crosse has niche stuff."
- "Family owned businesses, we love that about La Crosse...but here there's just Target."
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.
- "Part of it is the bluff land. The topography...you can't find this anywhere else..."
- "Probably find some place close to the river. Within walking distance...now you can cross Highway 35 [and get to the river] without taking your life into your own hands."
- "I love it around here. All our parks systems are pretty close."
- "Hiking up on Grandad's bluff, we have tons of hiking trails...last Saturday we didn't have anything to do so we took our daughter in her stroller to the swamp area...you see birds, snakes—there's always something to do."
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.
- "It was 45 degrees and raining, and we saw tons of people fishing."
- "The rivers - [we're a] big boating family. That aspect is very important."
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.
- "I feel like it's a really healthy place to live, healthy food, get to enjoy the outdoors."
- "...there are a lot of chiropractors in the area...there's a lot of health classes...the new restaurants are trending towards healthy or organic"
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.
- "I really just have a support system. My immediate family lives where I grew up. My grandma lives two blocks from my house."
- When asked what he needs from community, a young adult in their 20s who lives and works in Onalaska replied: "The people I interact with, it's a ton of people...going to community events that I know about because I help put them on...going to the Blue Moon is where you get the best sense of community for me."
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.
- "This area has a strong bar/drinking life, and that's not me."
- "My friends that have left, they say there's nothing to do. They're the type that didn't get out to do anything. Versus our friends now who go to every single freaking event."
The sense of community in Onalaska also has visual, physical dimensions. Nine interview participants specifically praised Onalaska's comfortable, well-kept neighborhoods.
- "People really invest in their homes and community."
- "I feel like, living here, our neighborhood is very well taken care of...I appreciate that there are covenants built in to keep this neighborhood nice...if people leave things in their yard, their door will be knocked on."
- "There's no bad spots to be in town."
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.
- "My sister had a baby, and family kept us around."
- When asked what keeps people in Onalaska, one person said: "They have roots here."
- "I left...for college and I stayed there for a while. I came back because my mother has health issues, so to care for her."
- "I think it's a family driven community...a lot of people come back to raise families."
Work-life balance is important to people and at least one employer was praised for supporting that balance.
- "Trane has been a really great company...that work-family life balance has been really important to us. I don't want my husband to work all the time...[We have a] stable income which you don't get when you run your own business."
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.
- "There's still that small town vibe and I think that's what attracts people about this area"
- "After having lived in big cities - it's easy to live here."
- "La Crosse is a small city. But lots of people that come from small towns don't even want to live in a small city. They want to be on the outskirts."
- "In the cities we spent more time in the car...friends are kind of scattered. In this community, you can get together with friends at the last minute...I think that's led to stronger relationships."
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.
- "We moved here with the thought of our kids attending school...We chose after the fact that we are a homeschool family. We wouldn't send our kids to school in La Crosse, that's one thing we did know."
- "We're going to have a kid and we don't want to switch school districts."
- "At this point, I'm not moving. My son is a sophomore in high school. I have no intention of leaving until he's out of high school."
- "Once you get established in a good school, it's hard to leave."
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.
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.
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?