After visitors leave northwestern Wisconsin vacation destinations, year-round residents embrace natural beauty while facing economic challenge.
On a map, northern Wisconsin looks like it has been splattered with paint: lakes, rivers, streams, swamps. The glaciers left traces of water pocketed in the land thousands of years ago, creating what looks like a Jackson Pollack piece in varying hues of blue.
Today, northwestern Wisconsin is an accumulation of small towns and cabins, where water hides around every corner. Roads snake through rural communities, merely the stopping points on the way to somewhere else and nowhere in particular.
Driving northeast up Highway 63, there’s a sign leading into Shell Lake, Wisconsin, that reads “Welcome to Vacationland.”
Of the thousands of lakes in northern Wisconsin, Shell Lake is just one that draws people from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois to camp, fish, water ski and snowmobile each year. The downtown campground buzzes in the summer and cabins along the water fill with short-term renters. The community relies on these outdoor dollars, but the tourism industry isn’t enough to sustain the area and provide jobs to residents.
Here To Stay
Steve Simundson, 47, has lived in more towns in the region than he can count on his hand, including Spooner, Cumberland, Hayward and, where he has called his vacationland home since 1990, Shell Lake. However, his residency shouldn’t be an indicator of Shell Lake’s economic viability, as the rural area has been depressed for as long as he can remember.
The average annual income of residents in the northwest region of Wisconsin lags behind the rest of the state. The 2012 per capita personal income in Washburn County is $37,377, which is 89 percent of the state’s PCPI.
“There just isn’t enough industry, and especially you don’t see the technology-based stuff that’s hot in urban areas,” Simundson says. “You just don’t see a lot of opportunities for people that are getting advanced education.”
Before the recession hit, Simundson worked in real estate. He left when the market plummeted.
Today, he owns a home near Shell Lake in Trego with his wife, Holly, and son, Jonah. They have lived on a little more than 11 acres of land for almost 11 years, the longest Simundson can remember staying in one place. Currently, Simundson is in school again, this time studying to be a nurse.
“[Nursing is] not dependent on the economy, and you can do that anywhere,” he says.
While Simundson acknowledges the economic instability of the area, he praises the overall quality of life lake country provides him and his family.
“I think it’s the water more than anything—the abundant lakes and rivers,” Simundson says. “I like hunting, but I love fishing, so this area affords me a lot of different opportunities to do the things I like to do just to get away.”
Simundson stays in Shell Lake, but that doesn’t keep others from questioning the worth of living up north.
Flowing Water, Stagnant Growth
Six of the 10 counties in the northern region experienced negative growth between 2000 and 2010. One of them was Washburn, the county Shell Lake is in.
Although population grew by 15.4 percent in the region between 1970 and 2010, growth did not keep up with the rest of the state (28.7 percent) or nation (51.9 percent) during that 40-year span, according to a report from the Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NWRPC).
This decades-long descension could have a serious affect on future growth. Fortunately, the regional community is fighting back to stimulate the business environment, and, by extension, the local economy.
Rick Roeser, a business development specialist at the NWRPC, says the organization
aids business development that has been lacking in the region in the past, and in turn creates more stable and high-skilled jobs.
The NWRPC provides loans and technical services to startups and established companies that are looking to expand. Manufacturing is one of the industries the organization hopes to develop further because there’s a better potential for job creation with those styles of companies, Roeser says.
For him, the goal isn’t just to create more jobs, but to create quality jobs that retain residents and draw new people to the area, and jobs that don’t slow down when vacationers leave.
“Obviously, the high time of year for that sector of the economy is from Memorial Day to Labor Day and that’s the point of trying to help develop other companies that are more year-round,” Roeser says.
By strengthening other divisions of the economy to be more diversified, well-rounded and less dependent on seasonal income, Roeser hopes people will be drawn to the area full-time.
“We want them to live here rather than just travel here,” he says.
For realtor Jeri Bitney, the draw of Shell Lake creates a busy housing market for primary and secondary home residents, but she notes that homes are cheaper up north because of the lower median income in the area.
In other areas, “you can’t get a three-bedroom house with a two-car garage and full basement and two bathrooms for $98,000,” she says. “But you can around here because of the income level of the people that live here.”
Newcomers usually buy more expensive homes or even, on rare occasion, buy properties along the lake to tear down and rebuild—the shoreline being the most valuable asset. For this reason, you will find lakeside palaces nestled between A-frames and log cabins on the lake.
Despite the beauty of lakeside homes, the recession hit Bitney’s business hard between 2009 and 2011, highlighting the instability a recreation and tourism-based economy puts on the area.
“As people are less confident, they buy only things that they need,” Bitney says. “You don’t need a cabin on a lake. You don’t need one, you just want one.”
Despite the area’s lagging growth, there is a draw: the water, the land and the quiet. Most people don’t come to northwestern Wisconsin to make it big. But maybe that’s the point. It’s a haven for recreation, relaxation and beauty. It’s a place to get away.
Making It A Home
Juany and Jerry Dahlen sound like pioneers when they describe why they moved from New Glarus, Wisconsin, to Shell Lake at the end of the summer. Juany is 67. Jerry is 71. At their age, they’re expected to settle down, but they want a new adventure on a new frontier. They bought a house and 80 acres of land two miles outside of Shell Lake. Since then, they have been working to make their homestead feel like home.
“We want to explore the towns. We want to explore the people, who they are,” Jerry says. “We want to explore the lakes. We want to explore what’s over the next hill.”
Each morning before breakfast, they take their first walk of the day. A retired biology teacher, Jerry restores prairies and savannas. On the land across the street from their home, he takes inventory of the plants and wildlife he comes across.
Juany and Jerry walk two or three times each day, and when the winter comes to Shell Lake, they’ll snowshoe.
“We love quiet sports,” Jerry says.
“Except for dancing,” Juany chimes in.
“We don’t get on snowmobiles,” Jerry says. “We don’t get on fourwheelers. Our fishing boat has a six-horse motor, but normally we like to have the electric trolling motor in the quiet, in the peace. The dog goes with us.”
Juany and Jerry lived on a farm in south central Wisconsin for 20 years before moving up north. Jerry retired in 1999 and Juany, who is semi-retired, teaches graduate school classes all over the country. They bought a cottage on Little Ripley Lake, eight miles from Shell Lake, before deciding to move to the Shell Lake community permanently.
After finishing the renovations on their new home in Shell Lake, Juany and Jerry hosted an open house for the people who helped them during the process. They were hoping to get to know the other residents in the town.
“I kind of grew up with that whole idea of the more you do, the more you can do,” Jerry says. “You keep pushing yourself mentally, physically, financially, whatever it is.”
“For a lot of people, everything is too much effort,” Juany says. “For us, it’s like nothing is too much effort. We worked like dogs for that open house and only about a third of the people could make it. But you know what? The third that was here had a great time.”
Everyone has their personal reasons for living in Shell Lake. Like most people, Juany and Jerry moved to Shell Lake to experience the masterpiece that is northwestern Wisconsin. It’s a place to get away, but also call home.
Map: Demographic plots of Northern Wisconsin
The region of northwestern Wisconsin, which comprises 10 counties, lags behind other regions of the state in population growth and development. On the map, the counties of northwestern Wisconsin are compared against the entire state as well as Dane County and Ozaukee County (the wealthiest county in the state).
Organizations like the Northwest Regional Planning Commission aim to improve economic development in northwestern Wisconsin to keep existing residents in the area and draw new people in.