From the Executive Director’s Desk…..

Falling Behind? 

County Administrator, Scott Feldt, recently shared an article with me from the July/August 2017 issue of The Wisconsin Taxpayer entitled, “Falling Behind? Post-Recession Recovery Leaves Out Some Counties.”  While a couple of years old now, it is still pertinent today and very relevant to the issues we are facing in Kewaunee County and where we need to go as a County to continue to grow and prosper.

It was a great article about how looking at Wisconsin’s economy as a whole and comparing it to other states is important, but looking at individual counties, or regions, is as important, if not more important because of their variability.  There are winners and losers; counties where jobs are growing, unemployment is falling, and home prices are rebounding from pre-recession levels, and in others, employment growth and home values continue to lag and unemployment remains above average.

The economic health of a state, or county, often begins with jobs.  Expanding employment can impact other economic indicators – unemployment, wages and home values.

What this study discovered is several variables that separated those growing counties from those that did not grow since the recession; it can best be summed up as the lack of access. Economic success in Wisconsin appears to be related to access to major highways, university campuses, high-speed internet and having, or being located near, a major city, or being a boarder county to a state that is growing.

Wisconsin’s economy is dependent on transportation, second only to Indiana; which is why those counties with access to major highways fared better.

Connectivity is key, which is why access to dependable, high-speed internet is essential for businesses and residents alike. In 10 of the 15 counties with the fastest job growth, more than 80% of residents had access to high-speed internet.

Other factors that cannot be overlooked are the collaboration and access to resources and future employees that come by being close to a university, or for that matter, a major city.

A few of the economic indicators that can be used to measure the strength of the local economy are:

  • Employment gains (more jobs)
  • Growth in population
  • Home values
  • Unemployment Rate
  • Workforce (Availability & skill level)

Population growth is the one economic driver that has proven for decades as a way to anticipate economic stagnation.  A young and growing workforce will be essential to county health in the 21st Century.  Counties with the fastest economic growth had the largest population increases.  But, population increases do not always mean a growing workforce, as growth may come as children which are too young for the workforce, and which could also pull some parents out of the labor market if they choose to stay home and care for their children.

Future progress will hinge on labor availability.  Counties with growing populations and workforce are more likely to prosper, those with shrinking numbers of youth and workforce entrants will face hurdles.  Another fact; there can be no job creation if there are no workers to fill the jobs. During this booming economic times, we see help wanted signs posted almost everywhere – the challenge for our employers is where to find those people to fill their job openings.

Another workforce challenge is how to replace retirees.  Economic growth will suffer in counties that are unable to replace retirees.

To grow its workforce, Wisconsin ( And I will add Kewaunee County) would need to: 1) Retain more young people; 2) Increase the percentage of its population that work; or 3) Import workers from other states or countries.  Kewaunee County needs to replace between 50% – 80% of its workforce over the next 10 years.

Not surprisingly, the report states that urban and suburban counties with Internet access, college and prison campuses and major highway access see higher growth rate of young workers.

This brings up the old scenario of which came first the chicken or the egg?  Which comes first, more jobs or more people?

I am happy to see Kewaunee County addressing the lack of high-speed Internet issue and now looking at doing a housing study.  Both the lack of high speed Internet and affordable housing options are essential in answering the question, “What can be done to attract workers, particularly young ones, to the County?” Like many struggling counties, we lack a large, or even medium size city, and also lack access to high-speed Internet, an essential asset for attracting younger populations.  We are fortunate enough to be part of the Green Bay MSA; with our close proximity of just 15-30 miles, our residents have access to additional resources and amenities that have allowed us to at least maintain compared to the more northern Counties that are in somewhat of a death spiral.

Now is the time for us to address these issues and to grow our County’s population, workforce and economy.  If neglected, our schools and local governments will face challenges.  Willa shrinking working population reduce property values, the primary tax base for counties, municipalities and schools?  A growing senior population will create increased demand for senior and assisted-living facilities.  Will Kewaunee County have the workers to staff them?  Will we be able to afford the increased financial burden of an aging population.

Not all is doom and gloom, we have seen an increase in job growth over the last year that is above the United States and Wisconsin averages.  Our unemployment rate is below the United States & Wisconsin rates, and our Median Family Income Level is above the US and Wisconsin Levels.

But, other indicators such as a declining population (down 0.9%), and aging population (43.9 years of age) is much higher than the Unites States (37.4), or Wisconsin (39.1).

Having a skilled workforce is imperative to retaining and attracting employers. We have an aging workforce which saw a 19% increase in workers 55 year of age or older and an almost 4% and 6.4% decline in workers 30-54 years of age and 29 and younger respectively.

None of us like paying higher taxes, but unless we act now to grow our tax base, we could be faced with such a scenario as costs for the services we enjoy continue to rise. It is because of the many economic indicators mentioned above that the Kewaunee County economic Development Corporation has set its goals of working on workforce development, assiting our existing businesses with retention and expansion while also looking for opportunities to attract businesses to our County as well as providing assistance to those entrepreneurs looking to start a business, or expand their home based business to a commercial or industrial location.

This all takes time and resources, which requires a commitment and investment from our community.  We need your time, talent and financial support if we are going to grow our local economy and make Kewaunee County a place that is attractive for our kids and grandkids to want to stay and work, as well as attracting others to our County!

~From the Desk of the Kewaunee County Economic Development Executive Director,

Richard Baker