UW-Madison report studies millennials who moved to rural communities

A report from UW-Madison highlights rural communities that have managed to keep their young adults, bucking the trend of millennials leaving for greener pastures.

It shows these young adults want to be connected to nearby metro areas but also desire a strong sense of community in the place they’re living.

Per a release from the university, the percentage of adults age 20 to 39 fell 22 percent in the median Wisconsin municipality between 1990 and 2010. But 15 percent of rural communities in the state were found in a study last year to have a stable or rising percentage of young adults.

The study was conducted by Randy Stoecker, a professor of sociology at UW-Madison. He first examined data for all towns, villages and cities in the state, and then sent researchers to the top 12 communities to perform in-person case study interviews. More recently, further interviews were done to dig deeper into what makes each place special.

Communities studied were: Delavan, West Bend, Omro, De Pere, Black Creek, Plover, Hayward, Somerset, New Richmond, Onalaska, Brooklyn and Evansville.

For many of these areas, being close to a big city makes all the difference — Evansville is near Madison; Onalaska is near La Crosse; and New Richmond and Somerset are just over the state line from the Twin Cities.

“To have rural development that happens in the way people want it to happen may depend on urban development,” Stoecker said. “It’s a real symbiosis.”

Omro, population 3,500, is one of those metro-dependant communities. Dana Racine, head of community development for Omro, says “as much as some people may dispute it, it’s the proximity of Oshkosh that helps explain our success.”

“But we are not Oshkosh; we are a more bedroom community, and that allows us to have our own rural culture that is small, safe, with a historic element and this strong connection to each other,” she said.

Interviewees in Omro spoke about the importance of community organizations, neighborhood events and casual sports leagues.

De Pere, population 25,000, is home to St. Norbert’s College and a new campus for the Medical College of Wisconsin. Interviewees said young adults stay for the deep community connections, and to be near Green Bay and the greater Fox Valley area.

City administrator Lawrence Delo said, “I don’t know if it’s so important to focus on retaining that age bracket as on making a good place for all ages.”

He adds: “More than attracting a certain age group, we see a strong similarity between what the 20-to-40s like and what the baby boomers like: the same amenities, the quality of life, beauty, atmosphere, safety, transportation.”

Andrew Pantzlaff works in communications for the city. He moved to De Pere five years ago, and says the area appealed to him, because it “strikes this appealing, rare balance of having the quaint charm and safety of a small community while being large enough to offer so many amenities and things to do.”

“For the few commodities or amenities that don’t exist in De Pere, there’s such easy, quick access to get to them in neighboring bigger cities like Appleton and Green Bay,” he said.

Another of the top 12 is Hayward, population 2,317, with a growing percentage of young adults and a number of tourist attractions including the American Birkebeiner — the largest cross-country ski race in North America.

In face-to-face interviews in Hayward, locals said both summer and winter sports — fishing, snowmobiling, hiking, snowshoeing and biking — are a big part of the the area’s culture.

Delavan, population 8,463, benefits from being less than an hour’s drive from Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. But, researchers note, “while a significant number of participants mentioned Delavan’s proximity to larger cities, it did not seem to dominate the conversation and perception of the place.”

Rather, Delavan has its own diverse identity which is shaped by the area’s large Hispanic population and by the Wisconsin School for the Deaf.

See more on the study: http://apl.wisc.edu/shared/youngadults/case-studies