Gray matters: Iron County communities eye mining as cure to aging population
By Mario Koran and Lukas Keapproth
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
HURLEY, Wis. — It’s Fourth of July weekend in this Iron County community, and 19-year-old Chanel Youngs tends an empty store.
Aside from the whir from the ceiling fan, and the sound of a slow-passing car down Silver Street, the Liberty Bell Chalet is quiet. “Nothing ever happens here,” Youngs said, “nothing ever changes.”
Youngs, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, doesn’t plan to stay in her hometown much longer.
“I knew if I wanted to be successful, get a degree, a good paying job, I had to leave.”
During the 1990s, only Milwaukee County lost population in Wisconsin. But from 2000-10, while the state’s population grew by 6 percent, 19 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties lost population, with the declines concentrated in rural areas. The losses continued in most of those rural counties in 2011. In these places, the population is aging, fewer babies are born, and fewer workers are left to support — and care for — those left behind.
“When we think about the needs of the community and the tax base that’s required to support a community and all of its services, this is where it really starts to matter, not only for the current well-being of the community but for the future well-being for the community,” said Katherine Curtis, a UW-Madison assistant professor of community and environmental sociology.
Since 2000, Iron County has lost almost 14 percent of its population — about one out of every seven people. With a median age of 51, its population is the oldest in Wisconsin.
Curtis said an aging county means fewer economically productive people in the community. Less than half of the population older than 16 years old was in the workforce in Iron County in 2010 “due to its old population,” according to the state Department of Workforce Development. That compares to a statewide rate of 69 percent.
Until recently, a relatively diverse constellation of industries — farming, manufacturing, mining and tourism — has sustained these communities, said experts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Applied Population Laboratory (APL).
While “these patterns exist across the country,” each county has its own story about why young people are leaving, said Dan Veroff, APL director and demographic specialist.
Communities such as Hurley are hoping for a revival in the long-dormant mining industry, while hemorrhaging the same young people — often the most talented — who could help stave off the brain drain.
“It’s a great place to grow up,” said Youngs, “but you have to leave.”
A county on pause
Sonni Lauren tends bar on a Friday night at the Liberty Bell, her family’s store and restaurant, which has served local residents and tourists since 1923.
She slides around the bar, pouring drinks, greeting customers by name. She knows some people confuse living in a small town with lack of ambition, but Lauren said she has never wanted to leave.
“Some people make you feel like, ‘Why are you here in this small town?’ But I don’t have to explain myself. It’s my family’s restaurant, and I’m a lifer. I’m sure of it.”
In Hurley, her children can ride their bikes around the block in safety, they have the same teachers she had, and the principal knows them by name. But the quality of life that keeps Lauren close to home might be slipping away.
The effect of Iron County’s graying population can be seen in the Hurley School District, where enrollment dropped almost 19 percent, to 626 students, from 2000-10. As a result, annual state aid dropped by $1 million to $3.5 million.
Some look to mine with hope
To reverse the population slide, many residents are counting on a revival of a plan to open a large iron mine in Iron County and Ashland counties.
Gogebic Taconite has proposed a 4½-mile-long mine that would cost $1.5 billion and bring an estimated 700 jobs. But the project stalled after the state Senate, facing stiff opposition from environmental groups and Indian tribes, turned down a bill sought by the company that would have eased mining regulations.
Hurley Mayor Joe Pinardi said 95 percent of his constituents favored the mine. He said the county cannot continue to rely on tourists drawn to its lakes, scenic beauty, hunting and fishing.
Tourism, he said, is too unsteady.
The mayor believes the mine bill, which is expected to be resurrected in January, could be the key to reversing Iron County’s population slide. Critics counter that a large mine could keep people from visiting the area, where restaurants and drinking establishments are the top employer. “Attract young people?” Pinardi said. “You don’t need to do anything to attract them. All you have to do is create jobs so that they can stay here.”
But there can be tension between tourism and the need for good-paying jobs, said Gary Green, UW-Madison professor of community and environmental sociology. “[Tourists] go to northern counties to canoe in the rivers and hike in the woods, and they don’t want to see a bunch of manufacturing plants. The local people want the jobs, but the seasonal residents and the tourists don’t want the manufacturing there.”