Census estimates show continued battle with rural Wisconsin population lossSubmitted: 03/27/2015
MERRILL - Census data shows more people leaving many parts of northern Wisconsin. It's an issue that continues to challenge rural parts of Wisconsin.

Nearly half of Wisconsin 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 declines might not just revolve around jobs.

"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 County losing population during that time span.

Newer information comparing populations on July 1, 2013 and July 1, 2014 showed Adams, Bayfield, Lincoln, Oneida, Portage, Langlade, Price, Taylor, and Wood County losing population. Each county, except Adams (-1.4%), saw decreases of less than 1%.

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

"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 have somewhat of a marketing issue with younger people.

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

Many economic development experts across the state point to youth movement as their biggest population challenge. The continued youth movement to cities has impacted the continued declines.

"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 accommodate their towns to attract more young people. That includes downtown development and revitalization.

However, some believe rural areas have an interest issue with younger people, especially with some jobs.

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

Overall, the population in 37 counties grew slightly. Dane County had the widest margin of 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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