We live in a rural economy. Continuing trends show that the economy and economic development in rural areas will be challenging for the foreseeable future. Some of the data indicates businesses trending toward a move from rural to urban. Census data has shown population trending toward a southern state preference versus northern. This is somewhat climate driven.
These trends are slow forming and can be influenced. This is why we have to step up to the challenge and work to keep our existing businesses here, attract new businesses, and foster entrepreneurs. Businesses are looking at urban areas, in large part, because of workforce numbers. They believe that if they locate in an urban area, the sheer number of workers will allow them to better compete for those workers.
As economic developers, we must tear down stereotypes, break down data to simpler forms, educate, and communicate this information for businesses. Grant County can compete with urban areas for many businesses. I will never say “all”, but certainly the majority. A business proposing to hire 1,000 people and requiring 500 acres of flat land will likely not take a second look at Grant County. Most prospects are looking for less than 20 acres and will be hiring less than 60 initially. We need to highlight our schools, including K-12, Tech College and universities, and the product produced at these schools. I am not referring to just enrollment or graduation numbers, but including details of curriculum, STEM focus, degrees, emphasis, awards, and any way we can evaluate performance. The moniker “Quality of Life” is probably the most overused term in economic development because it includes so many different things. It means something different to many. If we break it down to elementary levels like cost of living, which would include the price of land and/or a house, then it can mean more to a business executive. Pointing out the wages paid in the region and comparing it to the Chicago, Twin Cities, or even the Fox Valley area, presents a noticeable difference to the business. Many times these details or data points are aimed at a potential resident or a potential business but not necessarily both. People worry about me talking about our mean wages. According to Workforce Development, the wages in Grant County are around 28% below the State’s mean wages. What would happen if our industries and businesses paid at the level of the State’s mean wage for that position or job? Would we attract more people to work in the area? Would a business that operates a facility in an area that is above the State’s mean wage or the nation’s mean wage (nation’s mean wage is higher than Wisconsin’s) look favorably at Grant County? Would new parents, looking for a quality education in an area that doesn’t hear urban gunshots on a regular basis, like Grant County’s schools and communities? I know I just used a lot of question marks, but we have points to ponder. We have things that we should be proud of and we need to let the world know about them.
This is where we, as economic developers, need to market and point out why we are a good place for business and how we can compete with urban areas. I cannot do anything about the snow in January, but I can address the things that we can influence. We can educate the world about Grant County. I believe we can alter that trend, keep our businesses, and attract more opportunities to our county and region.