A young mayor pushes for change
By: Josh Lieberthal
The road to downtown Wisconsin Rapids is speckled with plots for sale, buildings for lease and outdated signage. A long-expired building permit hangs in the dirtied window of a decrepit structure. The old Consolidated Paper Mill and its looming smoke stacks dominate the horizon, even from three-and-a-half miles outside the city.
Once the area’s main employer, Consolidated Paper laid off hundreds company-wide under new ownership in early 2000. The layoffs initiated a job slide that continued through the recession. Without the promise of employment, young people in Wisconsin Rapids began seeking opportunities elsewhere after college.
Shifting labor markets and a decline in manufacturing have brought seismic demographic shifts in Wisconsin communities. In the last decade, southern Wood County has seen a 10 percent drop in the population under age 30 while simultaneously building its older population by 20 percent. This changing ground has left cities large and small searching to forge a vision for growth.
In these uncertain times, Wisconsin Rapids placed a bet. It bet on youth.
In April 2012, Rapids residents elected Zach Vruwink as mayor. At only 24, Vruwink already had an established record of entrepreneurship and radiated passion and enthusiasm for his hometown. The election brought massive voter turnout—almost 50 percent of the population cast a ballot—and he earned more than two-thirds of the votes.
Many saw it as a referendum on the future. Vruwink saw it as a call to action.
“What our community expressed, and what everybody was thinking, was it’s time for some young leadership to come back to the area,” Vruwink says. “It gave voters, and particularly residents, the opportunity to hope that somebody would come back and turn a corner in the community.”
Electing a young leader into city government will not solve the community’s issues alone. Change takes cooperation from other city leadership and the community as a whole. Vruwink hopes to renew the community outlook through innovation, new industry and outstanding levels of engagement.
Vruwink attributes some of his inspiration to Kelly Ryan, CEO of Incourage Community Foundation, an organization dedicated to responding to the changing needs of the south Wood County area. After Consolidated Paper was sold, Ryan’s community progress initiative instilled in Vruwink the belief that change happens on the ground.
In 2012, Incourage partnered with a Washington, D.C.-based research organization to conduct the largest community survey in south Wood County history and quantify the revitalization effort. The study identified four priorities for the area: openness to new ideas and change, opportunities for young adults and families, a strong economy, and nature and recreation.
Fresh Perspective and Positive Change
Vruwink said city governments tend to veer toward the path of least resistance. As mayor, he strives to break the status quo by challenging city officials to find new ways of doing things. Similarly, until the mill layoffs, Rapids complacently depended on it for employment. Residents with a high school degree eased into jobs at the mill, just as their parents had a generation before. Vruwink wants to help residents envision new industries and ideas to stabilize and then build the area.
“His election to the position of mayor is a very visible symbol of the fact that this community has begun to really adapt and look to the future and ready for change,” says Ryan.
Rebuilding the Younger Population
First on Vruwink’s docket was tackling the problem of keeping both Rapids’ young people in the area and attracting new people, knowing his goal can’t be achieved without employment. In short, Wisconsin Rapids needs new jobs.
“It’s difficult to recruit [young professionals] from a large metropolitan area, but when they get here, they drive around and they’re like ‘gosh, I could really see myself living here,’” Vruwink says.
Vruwink encourages businesses by listening to their needs and highlighting how his population meets them. In his eyes, the Rapids workforce epitomizes the hardworking Midwestern work ethic. South Wood County offers a high quality of life complemented by a low cost of living. Additionally, residents enjoy the small town feel but also their proximity to larger cities like Chicago and Minneapolis.