Rural Wisconsin

After receiving input from more than 500 rural stakeholders, the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity recently released its report, “Rural Voices for Prosperity: A Report of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity.”

Governor Tony Evers created the commission in January 2020 as part of his State of the State address. The commission’s 12 members include:

  • Bob Atwell, president and CEO, Nicolet National Bank, Green Bay.
  • Thelma Heidel Baker, owner, Bossie Cow Farm, Random Lake.
  • Brittany Beyer, executive director, Grow North, Rhinelander.
  • Pamela Boivin, executive director and loan officer, NiiJii Capital Partners, (NiiCaP), Keshena.
  • David Falk, general manager, ND Paper, Biron.
  • Tom Landgraf, principal, Dimension Development,LLC, Madison.
  • Rachel Sauvola, agriscience teacher, New Richmond High School, New Richmond.
  • Lauren Thompson, co-president, Wisconsin 4-H Leadership Council, Woodville.
  • Gina Tomlinson, CEO, Cochrane Co-op Telephone Company, Cochrane.
  • Susan Townsley, clinical social worker, Stonehouse Counseling, Viroqua.
  • Jeff Tucker, vice president of business development and care iInnovation, Marshfield Clinic, Eau Claire.
  • Cheu Vang, owner, Vang C&C Farms, Jefferson.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission conducted all its work virtually. The report is an account of what the commissioners heard from rural stakeholders through three virtual public listening sessions, 25 virtual meetings, and 45 written submissions. WEDC’s Office of Rural Prosperity (ORP) partnered with the Aspen Institute’s Community Strategies Group to support the commission’s work.

The commission made a series of overarching recommendations, which included:

  • Creating and appropriately resourcing a place within state government that understands and champions the unique attributes of rural Wisconsin—including Native Nations.
  • Continuing the governor’s efforts to make the needs and priorities of rural communities and Native Nations a forethought, rather than an afterthought.
  • Taking an “all-of-government approach” to doing right by rural and tribal communities.
  • Ensuring rural places and Native Nations in rural Wisconsin get a fair shake in accessing state and federal resources.
  • Unleashing the full power of communities to innovate and act by updating state laws that restrict local agency.
  • Reinvesting in the Wisconsin Idea and the University of Wisconsin, its satellite campuses, and our state’s network of community and technical colleges as unique and valuable assets.
  • Rebalancing state business incentives to ensure economic development prioritizes the assets of Wisconsin people, communities,and businesses.
  • Continuing the work of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity.

The immediate need for broadband expansion came up in nearly every one of the commissioners’ conversations. The COVID-19 pandemic has made broadband a necessity for education, health care, business, and more.

In response, ORP and the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin collaborated to launch the Broadband Connectors Pilot and provide technical assistance to communities seeking to expand broadband access.

Six communities were selected and received support from WEDC staff from October to December 2020: Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Ho-Chunk Nation, School District of Owen-Withee, Town of Cross, St Croix County, and Fond du Lac County. The lessons learned from the pilot are helping ORP and PSC better understand the broadband technical assistance needs of communities and identify gaps in resources.

In addition to broadband, rural stakeholders told the Commission that a comprehensive economic development strategy for rural Wisconsin includes: child care and housing, physical and mental health care, career pathways, family support, youth mentorship, transportation, food security, renewable energy systems, and education.

This report is a first step to better understand the challenges and opportunities in rural communities. ORP and the commissioners welcome feedback and look forward to continuing this important work in 2021.