map showing location of West Bend Municipality City of West Bend
County Washington
Year Incorporated 1885
Population and Growth
Population (2014 if available, otherwise 2010, indicate) 31,078 (2010)
WI Workforce Development Region 3
Young Adult Gaining Measure 7% (WI median is -22%)
Young Adult Maintaining Measure 27% (WI Median is 24%)
Social/Demographic Data
Racial stats, 2010 Census 94.8% White (Non-Hispanic)
2% White (Hispanic)
1% African American
0.4% American Indian or Alaska Native
0.8% Asian
1.4% Other
1.7% Two or More Races
Mean Income $67,580 (2015)
Median Income $57,060 (2015)
Year of Latest Comprehensive Development Plan 2004
Year and Amount of Last Referendum Passed (2012) $22.865 million
Notes West Bend is served by the West Bend School District.
Type Name Grades Served Private/Public
Elementary Decorah Elementary School K-4 Public
Fair Park Elementary School K-4 Public
Green Tree Elementary School K-4 Public
McLane Elementary School K-4 Public
Good Shepherd Lutheran School Pre-K – 8 Private
Holy Angels School Pre-K – 8 Private
Montessori Children House West Bend Pre-K – K Private
St. Frances Cabrini School Pre-K – 8 Private
St. Mary School Pre-K – 8 Private
Trinity Lutheran School Pre-K – 8 Private
West Bend Christian School Pre-K – 2 Private
Middle Silverbrook Intermediate School 5-6 Public
Badger Middle School 7-8 Public
Pathways Charter School 7-12 Public Charter
Good Shepherd Lutheran School Pre-K – 8 Private
Holy Angels School Pre-K – 8 Private
St. Frances Cabrini School Pre-K – 8 Private
St. Mary School Pre-K – 8 Private
Trinity Lutheran School Pre-K – 8 Private
High East High School 9-12 Public
West High School 9-12 >Public
Pathways Charter School 7-12 Public Charter
Tricenter Alternative School 8-11 Private

Conducting the Case Study in West Bend

West Bend was the first case study we conducted in 2017, after wrapping up our first two in Brooklyn and Evansville in 2016. We began building the core group to guide the West Bend case study in November, and conducted thirty interviews in February and March.

  1. Connect to University of Wisconsin-Extension:

    First, we reached out to Paul Roback at UW-Extension in Washington County. He had previously responded to requests for feedback that our research team sent out when constructing our list of case-study municipalities. We asked him for recommendations of West Bend leaders who could guide the study. He recommended business, government, and nonprofit leaders.

  2. Connect to West Bend Leaders:

    We held a meeting with these individuals, to review the following questions:

    • How is this project relevant to West Bend, and your role in West Bend?
    • What questions should we include in our interviews?
    • Who should we invite to interviews?

    At the meeting, we reviewed our question bank, and they decided as a group which questions they wanted to include.

    The group voiced some surprise at West Bend making our list of municipalities with growing young adult populations. However, they were aware that West Bend hosted a large younger workforce. They were eager to utilize the study’s findings to plan for nurturing this population, They could not yet anticipate how the findings could best be put to use.

    They decided we should concentrate on interviewing people around the 20-39 year old range. They wanted to interview a diverse group of individuals who live or work in West Bend, to explore as many kinds of lives as possible.

  3. Develop Contact List:
    Though our meeting was held in November, we did not begin conducting interviews until February. Meanwhile, the group provided contact information for potential interviewees. We also obtained contacts from community service leaders, and the library.
  4. Conduct Interviews:
    We then conducted the thirty interviews. After they were completed, we arranged to meet with the West Bend core group in the coming summer to review our results.
West Bend Interview Guide
  1. How old are you?
  2. How long have you lived here?
Population Growth
  1. How do you feel about population growth in your community?
  2. How does population growth of young adults affect you, and how does it affect your community?
Moving to West Bend
  1. What would you say to a young adult (20-39) thinking of moving here?
  2. Why do people move here?
  3. Why do people stay here?
Life in West Bend
  1. Where do young adults who live here work? What about other people who live here?
  2. How do you feel about your quality of life where you live? Economically speaking? Socially speaking? Culturally speaking? Politically speaking?
    Follow Up: What are the schools like here?
  3. What do people find to be affordable here, or not?
  4. What is entertainment like around here? What do you do for fun?
    Follow Up: What are the organized recreational opportunities around here?
  5. What do you think of shopping opportunities around here?
  6. How do you feel about your food options around here? Restaurants?
  7. Tell me about the natural environment here.
Beyond West Bend
  1. How would you want the city of West Bend to grow?
  2. What kinds of things do you leave the community for?
  3. Have you ever wanted to live somewhere else?
  4. What would influence you to stay or leave?
    Follow Up: How is your life here different than you thought it would be?
Making Moves in West Bend
  1. Where in your community are some places you have influence or would like to have influence?
  2. What stories does your city have to share? What are local projects or impacts that people have had? Which ones were focused on young adults? Tell me about them.

Results for West Bend

While the identities of the 30 interview participants remain confidential, a few key characteristics may prove useful to readers in their analysis of these findings.

The following themes arose repeatedly during our interviews. We took special note of themes that were discussed by one-third to one-half of participants.

Proximity to Milwaukee

Each of our case study municipalities claim a connection to one or more larger cities, whether that city is fifteen minutes away, or two hours away. West Bend sits 35 miles from Milwaukee. Fifteen participants cited proximity to Milwaukee as important for West Bend’s growing young adult population. People travel to Milwaukee routinely for work or play, including cultural activities, sports games, and bars.

Four of these participants also emphasized that Milwaukee was close, but not too close. West Bend is distant enough from Milwaukee to maintain it’s own economic base, recreational options, and identity.

Not everyone agreed that West Bend was so independent of Milwaukee. Five participants called West Bend a "bedroom community.""

Six participants underscored the impact of West Bend's proximity to surrounding communities, for work and play.

Jobs In and Around West Bend

For career-oriented young adults, the right kind of job is important. Seventeen participants discussed how the West Bend employment market influenced their location decisions, whether for beginning a career, or growing one.

Six participants pointed out that West Bend also allows for a good work-life balance.

But people didn't necessarily choose West Bend for a local job. Nine participants discussed how jobs outside of West Bend in communities other than Milwaukee contribute to West Bend's growing young adult population.

And for those working outside of the community, seven commented on the benefits of a "good" commute with low traffic.

Low Cost of Living, Strong Economy

Finances played a strong role in many young adults' location decisions. Fourteen participants discussed how a low cost of living and low taxes contribute to the growth of young adults in West Bend.

Seven of these participants specifically referenced the role of relatively low-cost housing in young adults choosing West Bend.

According to eleven participants, the job availability and economic base are founded, in part, on a variety of businesses in West Bend.

However, five participants did note either that it was a struggle to afford living and working in West Bend, or that some young adults may stay in West Bend because they are living with parents to conserve on finances.

Amenities and Growth

West Bend was the most populous community we studied. It seemed to be large enough that people felt more comfortable with the idea of growth. Thirteen participants attributed growth and retention of young adults to West Bend's growing population and economic base that produced a desired concentration of amenities.

Fourteen participants (including six of the thirteen mentioned above) pointed to West Bend's strong public school district and parochial schools.

Eight participants praised West Bend amenities such as bars and restaurants.

Recreation, Culture, and the Outdoors

Leisure activities are important for every age group, and can influence those who are at an age where they are still choosing the community they want to call home. Twenty-one participants discussed the importance of recreational opportunities for West Bend's growing young adult population. Eleven of this group referenced the YMCA, MOWA (Museum of Wisconsin Art), cultural activities and organized recreation for adults and children.

Fourteen of these twenty-one participants referenced the city's recreational infrastructure, including parks and bike trails.

However, six participants believed that recreational opportunities in West Bend were generally limited to hanging out with friends, especially for people not raising families.

Four of these six participants, however, were still able to list recreational opportunities available in West Bend.

Family, Home, and Community

Even though West Bend is a larger community, twenty participants still spoke about West Bend as a small, family-oriented community.

For thirteen interviewee participants, a strong feature of West Bend attractiveness to young adults is its welcoming feel, where people greet each other and get to know each other, and where everyone seems to know everyone else.

For fourteen participants, this sense of community produced a perception of safety and quiet.

People noted that there are lots of ways to get involved with civic life in West Bend. Five participants pointed to the numerous community service opportunities and organizations.

Seven participants described the strength of faith communities in West Bend, through which people feel connected and gain a sense of belonging.

Not everyone agreed with the perception of West Bend as a welcoming, caring community. Six participants said they wanted more friends, or that people in West Bend could be mean or cliquey and exclusive.

Some interview participants also saw West Bend as a conservative community. Seven participants discussed how the perceived conservatism was alienating, damaging, or a challenge to negotiate.

Opportunities for Growth

The interview participants also had ideas for how West Bend could become even more attractive to young adults. Sixteen participants offered thoughts to improve the city's infrastructure, recreational opportunities, socio-economic diversity, and more inclusive city planning.

Comparisons with Other Case Studies
Similar Size Cities: De Pere, Onalaska, and Plover

There were three communities with a similar size to West Bend. De Pere is just a short drive south of Green Bay, and is most similar in population size to West Bend, counting 24,555 people in 2010. Onalaska, at 17,736 in 2010, is just north of La Crosse. And while Plover is smaller, at 12,123 people in 2010, our interviewees saw it as part of a single community with Stevens Point.

People in all three of these communities were appreciative of their more urban amenities, whether the art Museum in West Bend, St. Norbert College in De Pere, or the universities in Plover's and Onalaska's border communities. They also appreciated the density of commerce that a larger population could support. This is in contrast to our smaller communities where most interview participants spoke of having to drive for most shopping beyond the basics and for entertainment.

A contrast of West Bend with these other communities is that people expressing progressive political perspectives seemed less at home in West Bend, and that may be due to the influence of higher education institutions in the other three places. In addition, interview participants in West Bend seemed less concerned about growth than in the other places, though that may be due to unique conditions in each community. People in De Pere were worried about the pressures on the local housing market driving up prices. In Plover, the concern was about protecting farm land and rural space in general.

Concern for Natural Water Amenities

We can also make some other comparisons. People in Omro, which sits along a river, and in Delavan, which borders Delavan Lake, are also concerned about the use and attractiveness of their natural water amenity. Schools were important in every community as well, though no other community had the variety of schools as West Bend. People in West Bend also did not emphasize the schools as community spaces in the same way that people did in the smaller communities we studied.

The Importance of Urban Centers

Perhaps most important to every community we studied is the role played by larger cities within commuting distance. Whether they were in a small town or a small city, having a city near enough to commute to work, or get dinner and see a show, seemed very important to young adults. To a large extent, the health of communities such as West Bend is dependent on the health of larger cities that can provide the amenities that there is just not enough population density for in a smaller place. The young adults in these smaller places don't seem to desire, or can't afford, to live in the large cities, but they want relatively convenient access to them.

So What? Implications for West Bend

Some of the results from our study may not be surprising to you. Many of the themes brought up by participants are indicative of any 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.

There are also some implications specific to West Bend. West Bend might be characterized as a small city by some, but for many of our interviewees it still has a small town feel. Some residents commute to Milwaukee 40 minutes away for work and play, but many are employed in town or in manufacturing jobs in the surrounding area. Some larger businesses that historically employ West Bend residents and people in the area include West Bend Mutual Insurance, Pick Heaters, and the school district. Delta Defense is building new corporate headquarters in West Bend. For housing, high quality rentals and homes are available at a lower cost than in the city.

West Bend has long had a reputation, confirmed by a number of our interviewees, as a conservative city. That can sometimes imply an unwillingness to fund public goods. And indeed, there are conflicts over support for some public goods such as the Historical Society. But West Bend maintains schools and park systems for residents that are perceived positively by our interviewees. Many households would say that this is a great place to raise kids. But singles and families without kids also enjoy the busy and beautiful area, the varied shops and the many free cultural events hosted by the city and local businesses. And the Museum of Wisconsin Art makes West Bend a host to visitors from across the state. The challenge for West Bend is find ways to continue supporting the amenities that have made it attractive to young adults.

Our interviewees in West Bend and the other communities emphasize the importance of the outdoors for young adults. An opportunity facing West Bend is riverfront development. West Bend’s downtown stretches along the Milwaukee River, and residents complain that the riverfront is treated like a back alley by local businesses. Community leaders have listened, and are developing the river front to be beautiful and inviting for folks to walk along. Meanwhile, residents love skiing and hiking nearby, and biking, walking, and running on the Eisenbahn trail. Maintaining such amenities for all-season activities may also enhance West Bend's reputation.

West Bend feels like a small town to some, where organizations and people are always giving and growing together. Others feel anonymous, and seek more connection. As West Bend engages in planning and developing its physical spaces, it could also consider social planning that could engage young adults, building relationships by planning how to build relationships.