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Report: Tourism and recreation are two of the main drivers of rural population growth in WI

Eagle River, WI Chamber Of Commerce Facebook

Between 2000 and 2022, Wisconsin’s rural population increased 5.1%. That growth rate is only behind North Dakota out of the Midwest states.

“I feel like if you talk to a lot of folks about rural Wisconsin, especially in some urban areas, there might be a perception that a lot of these rural Wisconsin communities are losing population and that they’re kind of struggling. I do feel like our findings do offer a little corrective to that,” said Mark Sommerhauser, communication director and policy researcher for Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Sommerhauser worked on the group’s latest report: “Why is Wisconsin’s Rural Population Growth Outpacing the Midwest?”
The research found that the top-growing rural counties are some of the state’s top tourist and recreation destinations.

Vilas and Bayfield are included in that with their populations increasing by 10% or more in the last two decades.

“One of the main things we wanted to do was try to understand what some of the common attributes are among the rural counties that are doing better in terms of population growth,” said Sommerhauser. “What we really did find is there’s a pretty clear pattern there. You don’t even have to know Wisconsin that well to recognize the name of some of these counties and how closely they’re associated with tourism and recreation.”

A similar trend is being seen in other northern Great Lakes states according to reporting by the Daily Yonder.

Pandemic Impact

The report also looked at how the pandemic impacted rural growth. Overall, the population growth rate in Wisconsin’s rural areas didn’t change between 2020 and 2022. But breaking it down county by county does show some dramatic changes.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum report doesn’t include that breakdown, but Sommerhauser sent WXPR some information after our interview.

Vilas County saw a noticeable increase. According to Sommerhauser, “its population growth rate roughly doubled during those two years relative to the decade prior.”

Forest and Florence Counties also say the biggest proportional increases in population growth rate when comparing post- to pre-pandemic.

Sommerhauser says several of the counties that saw growth between 2010 and 2022 had a notable uptick in those last two years.

Though that increase is not seen across all rural areas.

Not all rural counties are growing

The report found that rural counties with a lot of agriculture had flat or declining population trends.

According to the report, six of the seven counties that experienced the state’s fastest rate of population decline, at 2% or more since 2010 are rural counties. That includes Rusk, Taylor, Shawano, and Langlade.

There are also some challenges presented by the growth.

Data from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Applied Population Lab shows that Vilas had one of the highest net in-migration of people 55 to 74 years old.

About a third of the county is 65 or older right now according to U.S. Census data. That age group is projected to grow to about half the population by 2040.

“There’s no question that’s going to increase the demand for some services, I’m thinking especially for healthcare. There’s a possibility in some rural places that could really pose a challenge in terms of putting more strain and more demand on healthcare infrastructure,” said Sommerhauser.

Sommerhauser says while it does have challenges the growth also brings money and resources to those counties.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum is a non-partisan organization that does not advocate for any particular solutions to the issues brought up in its reports.

Sommerhauser does hope the information can help form policymakers’ decisions when it comes to both trying to reverse population declines and continue increases in counties that are doing well in that regard.

“I think the solutions are going to be pretty different depending on whether maybe it’s a county that’s more rooting in agriculture, those policy levers are probably going to look very different than say Vilas County where you have a really robust tourism and recreation industry. Maybe the goal there is to kind of maintain the level of population growth that they’ve seen over the last ten years,” said Sommerhauser.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the population size in rural areas didn't change during the pandemic. It's been updated to say the population growth rate didn't change during the pandemic.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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