By Tom Still

ST. GERMAIN – Judged only by unemployment figures, Wisconsin
looks prosperous compared to the nation as a whole. The statewide jobless rate
of 3.9 percent in August was more than a percentage point less than the U.S.
rate of 5.2 percent.

Within Wisconsin’s average unemployment rate, however, are
sharp peaks and deep valleys. Dane County’s 2.7 percent rate is what economists
describe as “full employment” and Menominee County’s 10.7 percent rate rivals
anything seen during the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

On the high end, 11 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties reported
August jobless rates equal to or higher than the national average. Most of
those 11 counties are clustered in northern Wisconsin, where the formula for
economic prosperity can be very different from the blend that works in other
parts of the state.

Finding the right mix was the topic of the first Grow North
Strategy Forum, where a group of business owners and managers, educators,
government leaders and economic development experts gathered to talk about
challenges and opportunities in the North Woods. Grow North is an eight-county
regional development group, much like MadRep in south-central Wisconsin or M-7
in the Milwaukee region.

The discussion in scenic St. Germain centered on issues that
often don’t occur to people living in Madison or suburban Milwaukee, but which
directly affect the northern Wisconsin economy. Here are examples:

Forest products and paper: What worries many people
close to Wisconsin’s forest products industry is a combination of threats that
make it difficult to responsibly harvest enough timber. Regulations at the
state and federal level are seen as daunting, the workforce is aging, and
transportation costs and access hurdles get in the way of shipping wood
products to mills and markets.

Transporting wood products by truck can be too expensive,
and pressures on the rail industry – including competition for freight trains
and cars from the oil fields in the Dakotas – have become a daily challenge in
northern Wisconsin.

Scott Suder, a former legislator who works for the Wisconsin
Paper Council, noted the nation’s fleet of rail boxcars has declined from about
200,000 to 120,000 boxcars in 10 years, with mandatory retirements on the horizon
for many more.

Public perception of logging is another concern. “A healthy
forest is a young forest,” said one forestry expert, who noted that many city
dwellers don’t realize that today’s loggers routinely use sustainable practices
in harvesting wood – some of which must be removed for the safety and biotic
health of the forest.

Broadband: Fast, reliable connections to the Internet
are something of a Holy Grail in northern Wisconsin. Broadband is vital for
tourism, health care, education, eCommerce, manufacturing and more, yet the
basic economics of obtaining those connections don’t always add up.

Lori Collins, who founded SonicNet in 2007 to serve Oneida
and Vilas counties in Wisconsin and eastern Iron County in Michigan, said her
company has steadily improved broadband service over time. Most homes in
SonicNet’s region can sign up for 10 megabit per second downloads and 3 megabit
per second uploads, especially if served by a wireless tower.

It can be a different matter if those homeowner want to
connect to optical fiber, which is expensive to install in a region where the
average density is under 30 homes per square mile.

“You cannot justify laying that much fiber to serve that
many homes,” Collins said.

Still, Collins and others in the region are forming
partnerships to improve broadband coverage and to tap into point-to-point fiber
that may be just yards from connecting to homes and businesses.

Workforce: Attracting and retaining a talented
workforce is critical to the North Woods. In an age when the population is
graying, and finding skilled workers is a challenge for many businesses, how
can the region compete for talent?

That question was addressed by educators who talked about
novel programs to engage students (big-city educators should take note) and
business people who wondered about a chronic mismatch between jobs and people
to fill them. Apprenticeships and tech skills were touted as necessary, as were
“soft skills” such as communications and teamwork.

Competitive salaries were seen as important, but so were
lifestyle issues that can attract and retain young people. Richard Nelson, the
new president of Nicolet College in Rhinelander, said the region’s future rests
as much on encouraging “brain gain” as stopping “brain drain.”

“If you convince other people’s kids that they want to live
here, too, other things will fall into place,” he said. “Fortunately, this
region has a lot to offer.”

Keeping that fact in mind and building partnerships around
it will be vital to northern Wisconsin’s growth.