11.27.2009

Making Wisconsin Less Stale

In my return home to Wisconsin this Thanksgiving, I've been paying attention.  How is Wisconsin looking?  How is Kiel doing?  How is the region faring in the recession?  Is this a viable place to live?  Are there indicators of life here?

While I think he may go a bit overboard in painting a dire scene, I think this observation from George Lightbourn raises a legitimate point:

We talk about keeping our talented people, but we give them few reasons to stay. We talk about attracting smart, dynamic workers but we give them few reasons to come.

You see, people who have options end up living and working in vibrant, dynamic places. People haven’t been migrating to the great American cities because life there is predictable and sure. They go there because those places are edgy and full or opportunity. Unfortunately, I’m afraid they can sense our staleness, our insistence that we cling to the status quo.

Wisconsin cities and towns, especially the areas outside of Madison and Milwaukee, need to get to work on eliminating the stale.  Brain drain has been hemmed and hawed over, but what does it actually boil down to in the end?  It does seem to have consequences.  Here in Kiel, for example, the downtown business environment is stable, but no longer robust.  Too many abandoned storefronts dot Fremont Street.  Too many businesses that could inhabit a downtown are now isolated, located along the highway on the edge of town.  New developments aren't all contiguous with the existing cityscape.  Many of my classmates have moved away.  Fortunately, the city is doing a bit better than a number of its neighbors because continues to boast a diverse group of manufacturing companies.

What about the remedies?  Taking Kiel as a microcosm, there's a simple need, first and foremost, for more community gathering places.  The public library is the only place available (at times) where one can access wireless internet.  There's no coffee shop on the main drag.  There's no bona fide restaurant downtown either.  And while there are numerous taverns in good Wisconsin fashion, they don't necessarily cater to the demographic or the mindset necessary to make a place liveable in the mind of creative, ambitious twentysomethings at the heart of a potential economic and cultural revival.  They're not enough, alone, to tip a person into the stay column.

In my experience, Wisconsin's climate (as in weather, aka cold) is already an irreconcilable baseline obstacle when it comes to competing for young talent nationally.  Thus, communities in the state need to bring even more to the table when it comes to incentivizing crucial individuals to join the community.  While communities certainly need to focus on the primary goals of enticing and growing highly attractive up and coming technology-based companies, it's the ancillary things that need attention.  Which questions, when answered in the negative, indicate the surface staleness that will bar vanguard individuals from even considering a move?  Probably a few of those that follow:

Will I ever hear live music in your town beyond a cover band?  Will my friends find anything unique enough about this place to a) visit, b) remember, c) tell others, and d) actually consider moving here?  Are there interesting places I go on any given day and know that I'll find several people in my age group?  Are there a variety of such places?  While the tradition and familiarity is great, does anything new ever happen here?  Are creativity and enterprise valued in concrete, publicized ways in the community?  Are people, even if they disagree deeply with me, going to be tolerant?  Is this an authentic place to live, as opposed to a mere bedroom community?  Is your downtown so restrictively zoned that I wouldn't be able to open up the fledgling establishment I have in mind? 

As I said, these sample questions help talent discern whether a community is hospitable.  They're admittedly ancillary to the outright question of "Do you have a number of great employers to hire me?"  But they're just as important - if not more important - when it comes to addressing the staleness problem Lightbourn raises.  Wisconsin cities and villages have many of the resources necessary to pull off a transformation, but it will require focusing specifically on identifying and reinforcing those resources with an eye to bringing energy back to town.