WisBusiness: Viroqua Writers Workshop subtext is economic development

By Brian E. Clark

VIROQUA, Vernon County – Ben Logan, who 30 years ago penned the Wisconsin classic, “The Land Remembers,” and Michael Perry, author of the more recent tome, “Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren A Time,” both chronicle life in rural, western Wisconsin in their books.

So it’s fitting that the pair will be the featured speakers for this fall’s Viroqua Writers’ Workshop, which will run from Sept. 27-29 and highlight the virtues of the Driftless area and the people who call it home.

Workshop organizers said they are hoping to attract about two dozen writers and photographers who will listen to the author’s tales and learn about the region’s artists, vineyards, cheese makers, Amish farmers and excellent trout-fishing streams.

Then – and this one of the main reasons for the conference – community leaders hope the wordsmiths will go home inspired and convince editors around the nation to publish their stories and photos about a region that is one the prettiest, yet least known, corners of the Badger State.

“The point of this gathering is to spread the word about Vernon County,” said Patrick Strickler, a retired UW-Madison official who dreamed up the idea. He made the 90-mile move west to Vernon County about four years ago.

“We think Viroqua is a wonderful, scenic place for a writers’ retreat,” he said. “But this isn’t just about altruism. We think Viroqua and Vernon County can gain from this effort by attracting more tourists and getting retiring baby boomers and others to consider moving here.

“That, in a nutshell, is the underlying business reason for this retreat. It has a solid economic development basis.”

Last year, travelers spent almost $47.5 million in Vernon County, which – in addition to Viroqua – includes the towns of Westby, La Farge, Genoa and Christiana, plus the Kickapoo River watershed and the Mississippi River running along its western border.

But that monetary figure pales in comparison to the popular Wisconsin travel destination of Door County, which earned $420 million in tourist dollars last year. Both have populations around 28,000, but the Door County peninsula is clearly more popular with travelers. In the thick of summer, it often seems that half that county’s visitors are driving cars with Illinois license plates.

Jerry Huffman, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Tourism Department, applauded the Viroqua effort.

“I think what they are doing is pretty unique for a town of a population of around 4,400,” said Huffman, whose department often helps travel writers from publications large and small pursue Badger State stories for their outlets.

“It’s part of getting our message out and doing our best to let everyone know what Wisconsin is all about – from museums to water parks to fishing to golf to skiing,” he said.

Huffman also confirmed that the Chicago metropolitan area and its 9.4 million people are “monstrous” for Wisconsin tourism. “One out of four travelers coming to Wisconsin is from the Chicago region.”

Huffman said tourists are now very niche oriented, often coming to this state for a specific activity.

His advice to Viroqua and Vernon County?

“They must reach out with a promise and have a very tailored message,” he said.

Jim Hohlfelder, president of Viroqua State bank – a sponsor of the conference – said he considers Vernon County “a diamond in the rough that needs to get its story out.”

Hohlfelder has lived in Viroqua for 21 years and said the community is improving. Ironically, its population has changed little from 1900, though it grew by more than 8 percent from 1990 to the 2000, adding nearly 2,500 people. And from 2000 to 2005, it added another 1,000 residents, according to county officials.

“There is some polishing going on now,” Hohlfelder said. “The trouble is most people still don’t know we are here. The interstate moves people north and south, so it misses us out here in the west.”

Hohlfelder said economic development has not been embraced by all people in his community because “some fear that they will lose what they have.”

The key, Hohlfelder said, is to “create more opportunity while preserving our assets, our rural landscape and our satisfying way of life. I’ve always maintained that you either grow and prosper or wither and die.”

Strickler, who is an avid fly fisherman, said it is critical for the county to find new sources of income because income from agriculture has been flat.

“The second big thing that is going on is that the first wave of Baby Boomers is retiring,” said Strickler. “They are the cutting edge of a huge number of people who looking to invest in new places to live.

“We hope stories about the quality of life here, the beauty of the land and the things to do will attract interest and investment in our area,” said Strickler, who noted that real estate prices are still relatively low compared to much of Wisconsin.

Dan Kiddinger, who owns United Country Oakwood Realty in Viroqua, said he often talks to clients from Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and even California who are looking for everything from primary homes to vacation retreats.

“People who want a slower pace of life are moving here,” he said. “Many are interested in fishing and organic living. I’m not sure if it will be a big boom. But for a lot of people being able to buy 20 to 30 acres, a nice home and out buildings for $450,000 looks pretty good.”

Regardless, he said he, too, is a supporter of the writers conference.

“Getting positive press never hurts,” he said.

For more information on the Viroqua Writers Workshop, go to http://www.viroqua-wisconsin.com/writersworkshop/default.asp.

The cost for the three-day conference, which will include roundtable discussions with other top writers and photographers, is $200. However, those who register by Aug. 1 will only have to pay $100.

Payments can be made to the Viroqua Partners, 220 S. Main St., Viroqua, WI 54664. Strickler can be reached at [email protected]