As we have noted in the case studies some, or even most, of the results from this study may not be surprising to you. Many of the themes brought up by participants are indicative of any healthy, thriving community.
So the question you may be asking is "so what"? If all we've done is discovered the obvious, why should anyone care? It's as obvious as going outside in the winter without a coat. Totally obvious and yet you all know people who ignore that obvious knowledge and suffer as a consequence. Just like we all know communities that don't take care of their schools and teachers, even though high quality schools is one of the "obvious" findings of this research. In fact, when we approached community leaders in our case study communities, many expressed surprise that they had ended up on the "gaining and maintaining" list. They hadn't even thought about trying to attract or keep young adults and many had simply concluded from the statewide statistics and the county-based studies that they were losing young adults.
So these "obvious" findings are only obvious in retrospect. Few people had even thought to ask the question, let along imagine its possible answers. Thus, it is worth paying attention to these obvious findings. In only 15% of Wisconsin communities is the young adult population both growing, and above the median of 24% of total community population. And remember, the state median for the "growth" of young adults across all of Wisconsin's communities is a negative 22 percent.
So let's look for a moment at those "obvious" findings:
Schools are for more than students
Yes, it is crucially important for the schools to have a good reputation. But it is more than that. We heard many stories of parents who felt like both the schools and the classes were small enough that teachers and administrators knew the students and the families, and welcomed them to become part of the school. In many of those communities, schools were not just spaces for teaching but spaces for the community. People went to the plays, the concerts, the sports events. They decorated Main Street for the homecoming parade. They held community movie night at the local school. Even the elementary schools opened their doors for community events. We even heard stories like the one about the school librarian happy to serve the needs of home schooling parents.
The importance of the right kind of housing
It's easy to say that a community needs housing that will attract young adults, but what kind of housing is that? From our research it clearly varies from place to place. The youngest single adults may be more interested in rental housing. Families with growing children may want more space. People wanting to live closer to the city (but still far enough away) may be willing to pay more. People living further away may be willing to pay less. What counts as affordable may be different in different places.
We heard a strong theme from many of our interviewees that they wanted space—they moved to rural areas for large houses on large multi-acre lots. But this was not a universal theme. People in larger less rural places, like West Bend, did not give voice to the space theme with nearly as much emphasis. In more political progressive communities like Plover we also did not hear that theme with as much intensity. And there were the unique places like De Pere where historic preservation figured into the picture. In Brooklyn, young families with the least income could afford, and welcomed, the smaller homes on the smaller lots.
Getting housing right is not easy. Hayward lacked affordable rental housing. Somerset believed they had too much rental housing. De Pere couldn't keep their housing appreciation under control (yes, constantly and rapidly rising housing value is not an unquestionably good thing). People were questioning Plover's large lots, and Somerset's smaller ones. Brooklyn seems to have temporarily found a good balance, but for how long we don't know.
Amenities, inside and out
So many people in so many of our case study communities mentioned the importance of outdoor activities for young adults. And, interestingly, the emphasis was often on the silent sports—hiking, biking, skiing—rather than motorized recreation. It makes a certain amount of sense that people attracted to the quiet small town life away from the noise and stimulation of the city would want their local outdoor activities to be quiet also. It is also important to note that, for many of these young adults, being outdoors is an all-seasons activity. But the importance of silent sports is not universal. In Hayward, motorized sports were also popular among young adults.
Inside, it is interesting how many people noted the importance of sit-down coffee shops for young adults. And it is worth mentioning that they didn't bring up the topic of coffee shops for the purpose of setting up their laptops and teleworking. They mostly mentioned them as gathering spots. One of the challenges in small towns is finding public gathering places where you feel like you can hang out without having to spend a lot of money or drink alcohol. Coffee shops offer that amenity. Also important for amenities are families to gather—pools, movie theaters, family-style restaurants, and other places to take the kids were important to the people we interviewed.
The Less Unsurprising Findings
One of the surprising findings from this research is how few people mentioned anything about programs or organizations geared toward attracting and retaining young adults in a community. Only in Plover, where a number of the interviewees were recruited through a group dedicated to growing the area's young adult population, did such a group get more than an occasional mention. We asked everyone in Brooklyn whether they knew of any programs to attract and keep young adults, and no one could think of any. Now there may have been networks of young adults we missed, so we can't definitively say that such groups are useless, but they certainly don't stand out in the mix of causes that attract young adults to a community. And that should give us pause.
The Importance of Cities for Rural Life
The rural places most successful at gaining and maintaining young adult populations were those with more convenient access to cities. For sure, the people we interviewed saw cities as violent, dangerous, alienated, expensive, over-stimulating places. But many young adults still don't want to be too far away from them. Whether it is for the unlimited shopping, the diverse and high-quality cuisine, the professional services, the diverse entertainment, or the best-fit career ladder job, young adults want access to cities. Just go back to the map in the Stage 1 section of this report to see how important cities are to rural places. This goes hand-in-hand with another less unsurprising finding that jobs did not draw people to particular small communities. Jobs drew people to a region, and then they chose their home amongst the communities in that region. For so many, the jobs they want are in the larger city down the road. And we often heard an antipathy to big box chain stores, especially in smaller communities—another amenity people wanted, but wanted to be in the larger city they could drive to.
Of course, that does create a set of dilemmas. One dilemma is that, if we don't care for our urban areas, we may not be able to care for our rural areas. Recall that Milwaukee County, the most urban place in the state, has only two communities that met our standards for both gaining and maintaining young adult populations. The decline of Milwaukee may have affected its closest suburbs. Or take Duluth-Superior. Duluth has done much better than Superior at clawing back from deindustrialization, but not to the point where they have attracted a regional young adult population on at least the Wisconsin side of that metropolitan area. Could a serious influx of resources into Duluth-Superior help to create a regional young adult draw? And two of our case study communities—Plover and Onalaska—have as their urban magnet small cities where there is a worry about the aging housing and other infrastructure. Should those cities become less attractive, it is possible that the small towns around them could also become less attractive.
The other dilemma is that traditional rural life does not include people driving back and forth to cities for work and play. And rural life rejects government bureaucracy. People volunteer to maintain the rural community—whether it is with the iconic volunteer fire department or with the casserole you bring, without being asked, to the sick neighbor. But in the smallest rural communities we studied, the phrase "bedroom community" popped up with more frequency than we expected. People driving back and forth to work long hours on the professional ladder climb in cities have less discretionary time for the voluntary engagement that traditional rural small town life requires. If you are out of town for work every day you can't join the volunteer fire department where you need to be within the fastest possible drive to the fire station. This is the dilemma that Brooklyn is facing. And people in a number of our case study communities lamented the lack of volunteers for important community activities. The question must be raised whether there is an optimal size community—one with enough local professional jobs, and enough local amenities, that no longer depends completely on unpaid expertise to keep itself going.
We also need to recognize that the symbiosis between small towns and cities may be an artifact of cheap oil. Once that runs out, the convenience of driving to the city will rapidly diminish, and the cost will rapidly rise. We have, as a society, been unsucessful at predicting what lengths we will go to secure oil to maintain the status quo. It is worth pondering, however, just what may happen to this urban-rural relationship if its lynch-pin, cheap oil, were to disappear.
The Desire for Diversity, and Tradition
We were struck by how many of the interviewees in our case study communities expressed an appreciation for diversity. Whether it was an appreciation for racial diversity in Delavan, sexuality and gender identity diversity in Evansville, or a desire for such diversity in other case study communities, the idea is on people's lips. Now, to be sure, people weren't always sure how to communicate across difference, but there seemed a genuine interest among young adults to live in a more diverse rural community. How much do people know about growing young adult diversity? Probably not much, because in nearly all cases they didn't know how to grow their young adult populations either.
This desire for diversity also runs into another desire—for tradition. Our interviewees regularly talked about having a "1950s" (or sometimes "1960s" but they clearly meant early 1960s) or "Mayberry" community culture of traditional values. These were not necessarily the same people as those expressing a desire for diversity, but they at least lived in the same community. One of the challenges for young adults and old will be imagining how to perceive diversity as a process of adding rather than subtracting.
Which Young Adults
One of the ways people think about the loss of youth from rural communities is in thinking about sending youth off to college and then not having them come right back. What we are beginning to learn, we think, is that those youth won't come back for some time. They especially won't come back while they are still single. In a number of our case study communities our interviewees admitted that singles wouldn't be happy in their communities because there wasn't enough to do and there weren't enough other singles. In many cases there is not appropriately affordable housing in the form of rental apartments. In addition, the word "family" was just too prominent in our interviews. It was young families that were attracted to our case study communities, not young singles.
So young singles may be the most difficult type of young adults to attract. If that is true, it has implications for the kinds of economic opportunities communities want to make available, the kinds of housing they want to make available, the kinds of amenities they want to make available, and the kinds of schools they want to make available.
The University Town Sphere of Influence
Another surprising finding from this research was the influence of universities beyond their host city's borders. We did not expect to find university graduates locating around, rather than in, univerity towns. You may recall that we took pains to control for the effects of universities in identifying places with growing young adult populations. But we didn't have a way to control for a university's Influences on nearby communities.
That happy accident has allowed us to learn something that can benefit non-university towns that are near university cities. We don't know how wide the university graduate effect extends. Plover and Onalaska share borders with their university cities. But we heard stories that Holmen, further up the highway from La Crosse and also on our list of places gaining and maintaining young adults, was also attracting UW-La Crosse college graduates. So, even if you're not a university town, your town may be close enough to attract those young adults. Succeeding in attracting them, however, may require a mix of housing, schools, and amenities.
The Future of the Rural Small Town in Wisconsin, or The Up North Dilemma
The map is clear. Wisconsin's most rural places are the least likely home for young adults. And there are no easy interventions for this condition, especially given Wisconsin's political climate. In a different political climate we could talk about subsidizing schools and housing, growing northwoods cities with urban infrastructure, planning appropriate housing development, and a variety of other measures that would create not just the communities, but the regions that attract and keep young adults. But those discussions will not be on the table for some time.
The question is whether, in the absence of such interventions, Wisconsin's northwoods communities, and its other most rural communities, can develop themselves with a relative absence of young adults. Our society does not have a model for a community without youth other than a retirement community. But in Wisconsin's northwoods we are not talking only about retirees. We are also talking about those whose children have left for college and, in contrast to the fortunate 15% of communities we found in other parts of the state where at least some eventually return, in the northwoods they may only ever return for the occasional visit.
Having said this, we must remember that Wisconsin's most urban place—Milwaukee County—is also in the race for least likely to be called home by young adults.
In addition, we should try to glean some lessons from Hayward, the main success story up north. Among the things we learned across many of our case study communities was how important outdoor amenities are to young adults. Nowhere was that more accentuated than in Hayward. There were enthusiasts for both silent sports and motorized sports, which can be a source of conflict but also a source of one kind of diversity. Both groups, however, require publicly accessible space for their favored activities. Hayward has also achieved fame for a single event—the American Birkebeiner ski race—which has now expanded to a year round schedule of activities. The Birkebeiner runs from Cable to Hayward, but Cable does not show up in our list of communities that are gaining and maintaining young adults. So more is going on than the race. A number of our other communities also contain lessons for developing outdoor amenities attractive for young adults.
We must remind you to read all of our findings with some caution. We used census data that are now seven years old. The last census data was also collected in the midst of a national economic collapse that influenced the mobility of all age groups across the country. It is possible that things have changed substantially in the intervening years. Our interviewees rarely if at all brought up the economic collapse as an influencer of young adult location decisions, but the crisis period of that collapse was long enough ago that it may not be forefront in people's memories. So it may be that new places are gaining, or losing, young adults in Wisconsin.
What we believe this research most shows is the importance of learning about young adults. It is easy enough for every community in the state to engage the same kinds of conversations as we did, and we are happy to talk with anyone who would like to discuss how to do so. We include a short DIY manual in the appendix that people can use to start the process.