Census estimates show rural Wisconsin continues to lose populationSubmitted: 03/27/2015
MERRILL - Census data show more people leaving many parts of northern Wisconsin. The population loss is a problem that continues to challenge rural parts of Wisconsin.

Nearly half of Wisconsin's counties lost population between 2013 and 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released this week. Most of the declines came in rural counties. However, Lincoln County Economic Development Executive Director Ken Maule thinks the reasons for the declines are more complex than just a simple lack of economic opportunities.

"We have jobs in this area," Maule said. "We're having trouble filling those positions because of the exodus people. Younger people are graduating from high school, going on to school, and many are not coming back."

Data from 2011-12 show Adams, Ashland, Bayfield, Forest, Iron, Lincoln, Oneida, Langlade, Price, Taylor, Vilas and Wood Counties all lost population during that time span.

Newer information comparing populations on July 1, 2013 and July 1, 2014 also show Adams, Bayfield, Lincoln, Oneida, Portage, Langlade, Price, Taylor, and Wood Counties lost population during that time span. Each county saw decreases of less than one percent, except for Adams County, which lost 1.4 percent of its population during that time.

Adams County had the highest percentage increase in population loss from 2013-14. Adams County Rural and Industrial Development Commission Executive Director Daric Smith says turning the trend around will be one of the group's biggest challenges going forward.

"We are in the process of strategic planning and working with local companies to determine what we can do to help attract more young working families to the area so that we can reverse the current trend," Smith said. "Growing our industrial community is a positive way to grow our population with working-age adults and increase school district enrollment."

Maule believes rural areas face a problem marketing to younger people.

"It could be argued that there is an interest gap, that students these days that are graduating are not interested in manufacturing positions that are not as glamorous as [other industries]," Maule said.

Many economic development experts across the state believe that the loss of young people represents the biggest economic and demographic challenge for rural communities. The continued movement of young people to cities has only steepened the overall declines in population.

"You can walk places, you can take public transportation, there is more to do in the city for the younger folks," Maule said. "The smaller towns, it's more about settling down."

Northwoods communities like Merrill, Rhinelander, and others are trying to modernize their towns to attract more young people, efforts that include downtown development and revitalization programs.

However, some people believe that rural areas will have a harder and harder time attracting young people no matter how much time and money they spend trying to modernize.

"It's not your father's blue collar factories anymore," Maule said. "And the wages, there are living wages out there that are available."

On a happier note: overall, the population in 37 counties grew slightly. Dane County saw the steepest growth, gaining about 6,200 people.

Wisconsin as a whole gained approximately 14,600 people from 2013 to 2014.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Story By: Adam Fox

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