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Testimony of Sam Rikkers, Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation; Assembly Committee on Rural Development

March 3, 2023
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Sam Rikkers

Sam Rikkers, Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

Good morning. My name is Sam Rikkers and I am the Deputy Secretary of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. I would like to thank Representative Armstrong and the Rural Development Committee for inviting me here today to talk about WEDC’s Office of Rural Prosperity and the important work it is doing to help Wisconsin’s rural communities thrive.

According to the U.S. Census and the UW-Madison’s Applied Population Lab, 97 percent of our state’s land is considered rural, and nearly a third of Wisconsinites call these places home.  Our rural communities are unique and blessed with some our state’s most amazing natural resources and landscapes. They are home to hard-working, caring people, and they are filled with a myriad of opportunities and challenges.

Governor Evers established the Office of Rural Prosperity in 2020 as a place in state government to help rural communities connect to needed state, federal and nonprofit resources and to serve as a voice and advocate for rural communities. By placing ORP within WEDC, the Governor sought to combine the traditional economic development programming provided by WEDC with the rural focus of the ORP.

As a result, ORP’s team of rural experts work hand-in-hand with WEDC’s team of regional economic development directors. Together, we are able to tap the programs funded by WEDC, which are dedicated to business expansion and development, community investment and entrepreneurship and innovation and also meet the special needs of our rural communities. This structure ensures that every day at WEDC and ORP, we are waking up with rural Wisconsin on our minds.

The office began its work by convening the Governor’s Blue-Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity. Throughout 2020, the Commission reached out and listened to rural residents and community leaders to learn about the challenges they are facing, possible solutions and the resources they need.

In December 2020, the Blue-Ribbon Commission released its report looking at how rural Wisconsin is faring. The report also offered a set of recommendations that focused on three main areas – helping rural areas with practical, day to day issues, such as increasing access to broadband; assisting with rural entrepreneurship, and finally, looking at long-term needs to ensure rural communities thrive. These three priorities guide the Office’s work, but it is important to remember that WEDC continues to support rural development with its traditional resources, such as community development investment grants, Main Street and Connect Communities programs, and historic and business tax credit programs.

In one of its first projects, the Office of Rural Prosperity partnered with the Public Service Commission to establish the Broadband Connectors Pilot. This project helped six communities develop the expertise needed to tap into available state, federal, and private broadband funding opportunities.

The communities included the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, the Ho-Chunk Nation, the Town of Cross, and St. Croix and Fond du Lac Counties, all of which received training and technical support. One immediate win was that the Town of Cross in Buffalo County received a grant so every home in town has fiber-optic cable. WEDC and the PSC are now compiling a Wisconsin Broadband Playbook so other communities can apply the lessons we learned from the pilot projects.

Meanwhile, in Eau Claire County, the ORP provided $27,500 to determine whether Starlink’s satellite internet could serve rural areas where fiber-optic cable is costly and impractical.  We found that Starlink is indeed a workable alternative and a number of participants have chosen to remain with Starlink after the pilot ended.

More recently, the Office of Rural Prosperity and the PSC began developing technical assistance resources to support regional planning for broadband implementation. You may have heard or read about some of these efforts, which involve geo-mapping broadband coverage at the local and county level. This initiative is to help communities access funds through the federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment. or BEAD, program.

All of us know that today broadband internet is not a luxury but a necessity for education, commerce, health care and innovation.  However, the complexity and the resources needed to solve the broadband issue makes it difficult for small rural communities to navigate. ORP’s role is to provide the support and expertise so these communities don’t have to go it alone.

ORP has also leaned into supporting our rural entrepreneurs.  WEDC recognizes that good ideas and the next big thing can come from any part of the state. But we also recognize that rural entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs face some unique hurdles.

Some of the most exciting work is being done in Platteville, where Secretary Hughes and I visited late last year. For example, access to prototyping expertise is key to developing new technology. So with a $40,000 Entrepreneurship Support grant from WEDC, UW-Platteville has launched the Pioneer Innovation and Prototyping Services, or PIPS. This allows entrepreneurs from southwestern Wisconsin to get needed prototyping services without leaving the region.

The lab pairs with Platteville’s IDEA Hub, which has helped dozens of founders turn their ideas into businesses. The Hub, which offers mentorship, training and regular entrepreneurship events was able to move into a prominent downtown Platteville location with help from a WEDC Main Street Bounceback Grant.

Those Main Street Bounceback grants are one of the ways WEDC is investing in our rural downtowns. You may have heard Governor Evers talk about this program in his State of the State speech and his budget address. WEDC and our regional economic development partners have provided $10,000 grants to businesses and nonprofits that moved into previously vacant commercial spaces. Of the more 9,000 grants awarded so far, more than 2,400 have gone to rural businesses.

While the program has seen tremendous success statewide, it is in our small towns where the impact of the grants is often the most noticeable.

Washburn, a city of about 2,000 people on Lake Superior, has a new art gallery, a toy store, a Mexican restaurant and even a martini bar in what had been a long vacant Dairy Queen. As of Feb. 7, Washburn had 23 Main Street Bounceback recipients.

Melissa Martinez, the director of the Washburn Area Chamber of Commerce, explained that before the grant program the downtown had numerous vacancies. Today, she says there is a new energy and optimism as more area residents take the leap and set up businesses.

Crawford County, located along the Mississippi River in southwestern Wisconsin, has received 60 Main Street Bounceback Grants so far, with 39 of those businesses in Prairie du Chien. The grants have had a huge impact, according to Carol Roth, the executive director of Driftless Development. She explains that small businesses were able to really stretch those grant dollars and, more importantly, these new business owners felt the state was really supporting them as they started out.

One need identified in the Blue-Ribbon Commission’s report is to develop leadership and technical resources in our rural communities. We are hearing from many communities that veteran staff with the know-how to apply for and administer complex grants are retiring – or that local governments are unable to fund these positions. The Office of Rural Prosperity is providing much-needed technical support to fill in these gaps.

The office secured a $425,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to establish the REVAMP program, which has allowed ORP to hire two full-time specialists to work with rural communities bring their innovative ideas to life. These specialists have helped communities find resources for projects ranging from child care and education to housing.

In Adams County, the REVAMP specialist helped local leaders address child care shortages that are so extreme that most of the county is considered a child care desert. Together, local leaders created a child care alliance. ORP provided grant-writing support that helped Adams County secure a $75,000 Dream-Up Grant through the Department of Children and Families.

In addition, WEDC has invested $150,000 in a partnership with the UW-Extension to help five rural communities engage in long-range economic development planning. The village of Gilman in Taylor County will be one of the first communities to finalize their strategic plan this month. Officials are conducting a housing study and developing a strategic plan to make commercial space more attractive to new businesses.

This is an example of how the Office of Rural Prosperity acts as a clearinghouse for information so rural communities can access support and resources from nonprofits and state and the federal governments. ORP is also leading a multi-agency task force to assist rural communities to get their share of funds through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. WEDC created a resource page on the ORP website that provide details on grant opportunities available through the law, and ORP has hosted in-person training sessions to help communities understand funding programs available across state agencies.

Another exciting aspect of ORP’s work is its administration of the state’s Cooperative Feasibility Study grants in consultation with the Cooperative Network. In the current biennium, WEDC and ORP were directed to administer up to $400,000 in these grants to help groups build new cooperatives and help existing co-ops grow.

The projects ORP has funded are aimed at solving some of Wisconsin’s most pressing problems in thoughtful new ways. We have funded groups exploring child and elder care cooperatives, new housing ideas and even meat processors trying to help farmers dealing with overwhelming wait times to bring their animals to market.

One of the most exciting of these co-op feasibility studies is in Jackson County. The Jackson County Childcare Network is a group of businesses, community leaders and early childhood educators who are exploring the possibility of forming a cooperative.

Under their plan, early childhood educators will be employees of the cooperative who work for child care centers throughout the county. Businesses will help pay subsidies to close the gap between family and government payments to cover the true cost of care. Because the teachers are working for the co-op rather than individual centers, the co-op can pay higher wages and offer benefits that will help retain the most qualified early childhood professionals.

It is important to remember that rural Wisconsin communities face many of the same challenges as urban ones. This is especially true when it comes to workforce. I want to draw your attention to two new efforts that WEDC is involved in through the Governor’s $128 million Workforce Innovation Grant program.

The first is a partnership between the Mayo Clinic and UW-Eau Claire to train rural health navigators. Some Mayo Clinic medical assistants are currently undergoing this training. These navigators or health coaches can act as liaisons between rural patients, their doctors, specialists, pharmacists and others. The coaches can help patients understand doctors’ orders, access the care and services they need, and know when to seek more medical attention.

The second project will help rural schools create their own pipeline of qualified teachers. A consortium of rural districts, led by Wisconsin Heights, has put together a package of scholarships and training opportunities designed to help rural students who want to pursue a career in education. By reducing students’ debt burdens, these districts hope they can encourage students to stay in the communities where they grew up or in other small rural districts.

Since its creation a little over three years ago, the Office of Rural Prosperity has worked every day to help our rural residents connect: with each other by sharing ideas and knowledge; with the state, tribal and federal governments; with resources that can help their communities grow, and by helping them gain access to broadband.

Our state is already seeing the results of this work: rural leaders are sharing ideas and pulling together to solve some of their biggest challenges; rural entrepreneurs are bringing their ideas to market, and rural downtowns are feeling a renewed sense of vitality as new businesses open. Throughout WEDC and the Office of Rural Prosperity, we are committed to building on this momentum so that all Wisconsinites have the same opportunity to prosper wherever they live.

Before I take your questions, I would like to share a video that I think really gives you a feel for the work ORP is doing.

Thank you so much for inviting me to address the committee. I welcome your questions.

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