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WisBusiness: Rural counties seeking to reinvent selves

By Gregg Hoffmann

VIROQUA – Like many rural counties in Wisconsin, Vernon County is faced with “re-inventing” itself in years to come.

The traditionally agricultural county, often ranked as one of the poorest in the state, is changing. The pace of those changes, directions in which to go and new economic possibilities were all discussed at the first Economic Networking Conference of the Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA) Tuesday.

VEDA is a little over a year old. Tuesday’s conference was its first big event. The 66 people who attended it were at no loss for ideas.

Former state senator Brian Rude, who now works for Dairyland Power, served as the keynote speaker and emphasized the county should start with its positives.

“I think you have to start with our incredible natural beauty, whether it be the Great River Road or the hills and valleys inland,” Rude said. “Arguably, that beauty is the most important asset for economic development.”

Other assets for Vernon County include its location near larger urban areas, its diversity of lifestyles, the “basic honesty, decency and integrity of its people,” and the economic mix what is already in place, Rude said.

The main challenge that the area faces is to develop economically, yet maintain the quality of life in the area. Indeed, VEDA’s mission statement reads, “To create economic wealth and prosperity while preserving out rural Vernon County lifestyle.”

Breakout sessions on agriculture, tourism, health care, manufacturing and “human capital” were held. In summarizing the discussion on agriculture, facilitator Tim Rehbein of the UW-Extension, said agriculture – both traditional and organic – remain mainstays of the county’s economics.

“We talked about big vs. small agriculture and I believe reached the consensus that one should not be considered better than the other,” Rehbein said. “Instead, we should all work together to strengthen the area.”

Rehbein said the number of cows have remained the same in Vernon County, while the number of farms have diminished. That demonstrates that some farms have become bigger. Meanwhile, “niche” farming and organics also have grown considerably, he said.

Tourism needs to be better promoted, but the county should not try to attract so many people that the environmental impact becomes negative. That was a definite consensus reached in that breakout session.

Trout fishing, canoeing, hiking and other so-called “silent sports” were mentioned as tourist productive, yet relative low-impact activities. So were antique tours, farm-experience tours and others.

Vernon Memorial Healthcare ranks as the top employer in the county, and quality health care should be maintained and improved upon, according Janet Kruk, facilitator for that group. Kruk mentioned that the county also has become a “mecca” for complementary and alternative health care.

Organic Valley, a cooperative of organic farmers, is the second biggest employer in the county. It can serve as a model for sustainable economic development that also is friendly to the environment, said Western Technical College’s Al Hanson, who facilitated the session on existing businesses.

Cecil Wright, who coordinated a session on “human capital,” said his group agreed that part-time residents, retirees to the area and other people who are moving to the county need to be encouraged to contribute their talents and work together with longtime residents.

David Maxwell, president of VEDA, said input from the conference would be integrated and shared with others in the county. Additional input from the public also will be sought.

VEDA currently is attempting to raise $100,000 annually to fund an executive director and pinpoint concrete projects. Maxwell said the VEDA board hopes that money can be raised in 2007, but projected 2008 seemed more likely.

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