Keep Milwaukee, just give me that countryside
Alpine Valley, Lake Geneva, Lake Delavan, and severe weather. Walworth County is Southeast Wisconsin’s tourism mecca, even if it does seem to receive more than its share of nature’s fury. But, from an economic standpoint, there are no storm clouds on the horizon.
The overall economic picture of Walworth County is sunny indeed, and one that is underscored by ongoing development of its population centers, says George Kovacs, the director of planning, zoning and sanitation in Walworth County.
The region’s natural resources, such as lakes Delavan and Geneva, have historically drawn visitors from Milwaukee and Chicago. Kovacs predicts that the preserved beauty of the area will become more attractive to residents of larger metropolitan areas, as urban and suburban development increases and drives people in search of open spaces.
Another factor drawing people to put down stakes in Walworth County is its improved road system. Kovacs theorizes that with more convenient travel routes, more people are willing to commute further distances to Milwaukee and northern Chicago-area businesses than they were in the past.
East Troy, for example, is seeing significant residential and commercial growth, thanks, in large part, to the development of I-43 alongside those towns, which at one point were simply served by two-lane state highways, rail lines and the old interurban.
East Troy, by the way, continues to get mileage off the old interurban, using seven miles of the line to serve industrial customers with the East Troy Electric Railroad, and using another part of it as a tourist attraction complete with electric trolley rides.
The biggest challenge for the county in the upcoming years will be to study and develop a land-use plan to control the growth and development of the area. So far, the urban development has been slowly increasing from 7.5% of total Walworth County land in 1963, to 10.6% in 1990.
According to a report by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC), Walworth County’s population could increase from 75,000 in 1990 to either 85,000 (low-growth), 98,000 (medium-growth) or 115,000 (high-growth) by the year 2020. Housing would increase, respectively, from 27,600 in 1990 to 34,500 (low), 38,100 (medium) or 43,000 (high) by 2020.
Kovacs says Walworth County is likely to adopt SEWRPC’s recommendation of land uses, but it will involve the local cities and townships to get feedback on quality of life issues and their appetite for growth in order to develop the most palatable plan for as many residents and businesses as possible.
Kovacs’ office functions as a “clearinghouse” for economic development within the county, as opposed to a direct advocate. If a business is looking for a site, the Walworth County Park and Planning Commission’s (WCPPC) job is to pass it along to the chambers of commerce or economic development offices located within the county. The chambers of commerce are then responsible for their own business recruitment.
The biggest pressure on the WCPPC will be finalizing the land-use plan for the next 20 years, a process which will include trying to synthesize each community’s own land-use ideas into a county-wide approach. This will be a matter of balancing preservation of farmland and natural resources with the quest for expanded commercial development and tax base.
“Sometimes you have to make tough choices,” says Kovacs. “We need to direct and manage growth, keep population density low in some areas and direct the growth to the established communities that can expand for sewer and water. We want to maintain open spaces and provide balance. The key is to have a plan in place for the development of this region.”
Directing the growth toward established communities is fine if your community is one of the infrastructure “haves” – with sewer, water and electric utilities that can be offered to prospective developers and businesses. But what if your community is a “have not?” Should all development be funneled into a few larger communities, thus giving the benefits of a larger tax base and more jobs to those communities alone?
While Whitewater and Elkhorn, through their business parks, have seen a surge in economic development, some smaller communities have been growing at a snail’s pace, seemingly unaffected by the economic boom.
The Village of Sharon is one such community. Nestled in the southwestern portion of Walworth County, close to the border of Illinois, Sharon is self-described as “the town that time forgot.” The chamber of commerce reports that only two businesses have moved to Sharon in the last four years. But according to Frances Williams, of the Sharon Chamber of Commerce, there are no real plans or strategies in place to attract more businesses.
“We’d like to attract more businesses to expand our tax base,” Williams states, “but we haven’t really been active [in recruiting].”
Another problem: the industrial park is full and the village doesn’t even own it. “We’d have to buy another tract of land,” Williams says.
According to Jim Caldwell, president of First Citizens State Bank of Whitewater and a founding director and original chairman of the Whitewater Community Development Authority: “No community stays the same. It either moves forward, or falls behind.” Caldwell and the WCDA believed that if Whitewater didn’t become proactive in its economic development approach, it could fall hopelessly behind.
Sharon, on the surface, is facing many of the same issues that Whitewater and Elkhorn had 10-20 years ago.
One problem with many smaller communities is that everyone is caught up in trying to run his or her own business, much less organizing and attracting new ones to the area.
“We’re wandering sheep,” says Mark Rousch, former VP of the Sharon Chamber of Commerce.
Sharon, and other small communities sprinkled within Walworth County, could benefit from county-provided development guidance, Rousch says.
On the other hand, a do-nothing stance could actually help a small town like Sharon remain attractive. As Kovacs points out, smaller, rural communities may become even more desirable as other counties and cities become over-developed.
Kovacs doesn’t rule out a larger, more proactive role for the county in helping smaller communities. But first things first. The land-use plan must be developed and adhered to in order to achieve the urban and rural balance that has attracted people to the county for decades.
July 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee
Keep Milwaukee, just give me that countryside