By Mario Koran and Lukas Keapproth
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
WISCONSIN RAPIDS — On a drive through southern Wood County, Dave Engel pulls his car to the side of the road, steps onto the street and points to the paper mill across the Wisconsin River.
“This mill was money making, efficient, community oriented — everything you would want in a company — until the paper industry started to crack,” Engel said. “Now it’s just a symbol. We used to be on the cutting edge. Now we’re on the bloody edge.”
Engel is a retired University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point English professor and a scholar on Wood County history. He remembers when the county was the headquarters for some of the world’s largest paper companies.
Engel has seen his hometown devolve from a place of wealth to one of economic insecurity as one of its largest employers, the paper industry, has declined. Now, he said, young people are leaving faster than ever.
Wisconsin’s population grew 6 percent during the 2000s. But one-fourth of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, including Wood, lost population from 2000-10. Overall, the county’s population declined by 1.1 percent. Meanwhile, the population of every surrounding county grew.
The decline in paper-industry jobs in Wood County has been dramatic: In the past decade, the county lost almost 50 percent of its paper manufacturing jobs, down to 2,200 jobs from 4,300 jobs in 2001, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“People have always been leaving the farms, they’ve always been leaving the mill towns,” Engel said. “The sad part is that people who want to stay, can’t figure out how to.”
In the late 1990s, paper companies’ profits started to plummet, due in part to rising pulp costs and moves toward a paperless society brought on by digital technology, he said.
Engel said Consolidated Paper was critical to his family’s financial success. It paid his father decent wages, enabled his mother to stay home with the children, and even provided him a summer job that he used to pay for college.
Like any parent, Engel said, he wants to live close to his children, but he also knew Wisconsin Rapids wasn’t right for his daughter.
After she graduated from high school, Engel’s now 22-year-old daughter, Angelica, left Wood County to attend UW-Madison. She was looking for a more vibrant, creative culture in Madison that she thought was lacking at nearby UW-Stevens Point.
“Rapids feels hopeless, at least for me,” said Angelica, who graduated in May from UW-Madison.
Life after the mills
At 24, Zach Vruwink did not create the problems that caused the population decline in Wood County. But, as the recently elected mayor of Wisconsin Rapids, it is his job to help fix them.
Vruwink, named a “Millennial Mayor” by Atlantic magazine, is part of a growing number of young mayors elected by communities seeking fresh ideas.
In his parents’ generation, “The understanding was, you graduated high school, and you were able to go work in the mill,” Vruwink said.
But by the time Vruwink entered the workforce, the promise of a job in the industry largely had evaporated.
“In high school, the perception and the attitude of most of my peers was that, ‘I will not return to this community. Wisconsin Rapids is a dying mill town, and I have no future here,’” Vruwink said.
It is the negative perception of small towns, as much the local job market, that needs to be addressed if Wisconsin Rapids is to regain its former status, he said.
Vruwink sees new potential in the cranberry bogs and marshes surrounding Wisconsin Rapids. The city is poised to recreate its image as a major food producer and processor, he said.
Yet, this small central Wisconsin community faces a problem with which many areas of the state are familiar: the widening gap between the skills employers want and the training and experience of local residents looking for work.
Mariani Cranberry, for example, plans to expand and create new jobs at its processing plant. The company is looking for workers with advanced degrees and high-tech skills, not necessarily the kind of person once employed by the paper industry.
“If somebody wants to locate here to grow a business here, and they don’t see the workforce with the skills, of course they’re going to leave and we’re never going to be able to retain firms here,” Vruwink said.
Working together to keep young people
Across the county, Marshfield’s population of 19,000 has remained stable despite job losses in the manufacturing and model home sectors. One big reason is the Marshfield Clinic, which has 779 physicians in 54 locations throughout northern, central and western Wisconsin.
Marshfield Mayor Chris Meyer said it’s time to change the approach to attracting and retaining talented young people. One strategy is the planned expansion next fall of the UW-Wood County in Marshfield from a two-year school to a four-year campus, allowing students to live and finish their degrees locally.
Another strategy is regional cooperation. Meyer believes that by acting as a region, communities in and around Wood County can attract businesses and population through collaboration rather than competition.
Meyer, along with the mayors of Wausau and Stevens Point, this year secured a commitment from the Medical College of Wisconsin to build a satellite medical school in central Wisconsin by 2015.
Meyer said the school will send students to hospitals in Marshfield, Wausau, Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids for clinical rotations.
“For the last few years, it’s been sort of a defense, ‘What do we do to keep what we’ve got, let alone attracting people?’ We just wanted to stop the bleeding,” Meyer said. “Now, it’s time for us to be more proactive.”