Even as Wisconsin’s rural communities grapple with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, they also face long-term challenges to their economic survival, such as fewer job opportunities and a rapidly aging and declining population base.

As part of his State of the State address in January, Governor Tony Evers announced he was establishing the Office of Rural Prosperity within WEDC and creating a Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity to recommend policies to support Wisconsin’s rural communities. Both of those initiatives, as well as the development of a broader strategy within WEDC to assist rural residents, have begun to take shape in recent weeks.

“WEDC is committed to helping rural communities and businesses in our state build long-term resilience,” said WEDC Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes. “By exploring new economic opportunities and improving the quality of life, we can help rural communities weather the current conditions and emerge stronger for future generations.”

Office of Rural Prosperity

The new Office of Rural Prosperity will provide “a one-stop shop for folks to navigate state programs and resources tailored to rural communities, businesses and workers,” Governor Evers said in his speech.

Office of Rural Prosperity Director Kelliann Blazek

In April, Secretary Hughes named Kelliann Blazek the first director of the Office of Rural Prosperity. A Wisconsin native, Blazek grew up on her family’s farm in western Wisconsin.

Prior to joining WEDC, Blazek most recently served as staff counsel for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, where she oversaw a policy portfolio that included agriculture, rural development and trade. She helped draft the 2018 Farm Bill and developed comprehensive federal legislation focused on climate-smart farming to promote environmental and economic resiliency in agriculture.

Blazek also worked on agriculture policy at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School and is a licensed attorney in the State Bar of Wisconsin.

“Growing up on a Wisconsin family farm shaped my values in countless ways and fostered a deep appreciation for rural communities,” said Blazek. “Now more than ever, listening to and supporting rural businesses and individuals is essential to addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an honor to lead a new office solely focused on strengthening the rural economy and enhancing the quality of life in rural Wisconsin.”

Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity

In June, Governor Evers announced his appointments to the Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity. They 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, Inc. (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 innovation, Marshfield Clinic, Eau Claire
  • Cheu Vang, owner, Vang C&C Farms, Jefferson

The commission is expected to hold both in-person and virtual listening sessions around the state later this summer on the impact of COVID-19 on rural communities and businesses, as well as the challenges and opportunities the pandemic has created.

The commission’s recommendations will help to form the biennial state budget, which Governor Evers will introduce early next year. WEDC will provide logistical and administrative support to the commission.

Governor Evers praised WEDC for continuing the state’s commitment to rural communities in Wisconsin, which, like their counterparts in many other states, have been facing declining population and lagging job opportunities in recent years.

“As too many Wisconsinites know firsthand, our farmers and rural areas across our state continue to face challenges ranging from unproductive trade wars to COVID-19,” he said. “We need to be better partners for our farmers, rural communities and agricultural industries, and that starts by making sure rural prosperity is part of our broader economic development plan. We need to keep working together and listening to the needs of rural Wisconsinites and communities so we can do what’s best for our state.”