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 says. “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 says, 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 between 2000 and 2010. Overall, the county’s population declined by 1.1 percent. Meanwhile, the population of every surrounding county grew.
The decline in paper-industry jobs statewide and in Wood County has been drastic. Wisconsin has lost 35 percent of its paper mill jobs over the past decade, dropping from 48,000 jobs to 31,000.
In all, 34 plants, including two in Wood County, have closed.
The loss to Wood County has been even more dramatic: In the past decade, the county lost nearly 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 says. “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 says.
Engel says 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 says, 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,” says Angelica, who graduated in May from UW-Madison. “People who are there don’t necessarily want to be there. Some got stuck. It feels still and stagnant; I can feel it in the air. And I don’t feel inspired by it.”
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 says.
But his stepfather was laid off from one of the mills, and by the time Vruwink entered the workforce, the promise of a job in the industry had largely 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 says. “The reality was, I was not going to derive (an income) from the paper industry, I was not going to get a job in the mill.”
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, says Vruwink, mayor of the 18,340-population city.
Millworkers still make up a large percentage of the community’s workforce, but 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 says.
Yet, this small central Wisconsin community faces a problem with which many areas of the state are now 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.
As more young people move away, Vruwink says, it gets harder to draw new businesses to the area.
The mayor says he prefers a grow-your-own approach in which local businesses such as Mariani Cranberry or Ocean Spray would offer internships to young people and encourage them to pursue careers and opportunities locally.
“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 says.
Vruwink says part of his job is to spend time with students. He tells them, “ ‘Yup, you need to get your education. And it’s quite all right to go off to school, but always consider moving and returning back to your community because we need young ideas, we need educated individuals.’ ”
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 says 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, earlier this year secured a commitment from the Medical College of Wisconsin to build a satellite medical school in central Wisconsin by 2015.
Meyer says the new training facility 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 says. “Now, it’s time for us to be more proactive.”
“We’re a health care community,” Meyer says. “But we don’t have the water or recreational opportunities that Point does. Rapids has industry. Separately, we can attract some people, but as a region, we can attract more.”