It’s been a long and unexpected journey, but Alaska natives David Miller and Courtney Ebert say they’ve found a community where as young adults they can work, live, raise a family, have fun and thrive.
That community is Portage.
“This is a good place to raise kids, to be able to get a good home at a reasonable price, and with great schools that make all the difference,” Ebert said. “And, if we work hard, someday we’ll own our own home, and it will probably be in Portage.”
Officials in communities like Portage across the region, including Baraboo and Beaver Dam, are working to make their communities more attractive to young adults. Their efforts have had some success.
Ebert and Miller, both 31, lived in Anchorage when David’s uncle told him that TriEnda, a Portage firm that manufactures custom packaging, was hiring.
Miller was making $12 an hour at a fast-food restaurant. TriEnda offered him $19 an hour.
After arriving in August, he camped out in a tent on his uncle’s property.
The rest of the family — including Ebert, their daughter, Marilyn, 7, and son, Martin, 5 — arrived in October. And to Ebert’s delight, their home, just two blocks from downtown Portage, wasn’t a multi-family dwelling. It was a house — a rental for now, but spacious beyond her wildest dreams, and much less costly than a small apartment in Anchorage.
In May, about five months before the whole Miller-Ebert household settled into Portage, Steve Sobiek, the city of Portage’s director of business development and planning, presented city leaders with statistics that surprised many on the city’s Common Council.
Data from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. showed the city is younger and more prosperous than many officials realized.
Sobiek said Portage’s median age of 37 was not expected.
In the county seats of neighboring Dodge and Sauk counties, the median age in both Beaver Dam and Baraboo is 39.
“The lower median age is the golden barometer for cities,” Sobiek said. “It shows you are going into the future.”
Economic development efforts in all three communities have focused on an assumption that the population is aging. In at least one critical way, it is. In Baraboo, Beaver Dam and Portage, the largest age cohort is composed of people age 65 and older.
“We are older, and we are aging,” observed Nate Olson, planning and economic development administrator for Dodge County.
Olson said he and others, including Beaver Dam Mayor Becky Glewen, are working to bring younger people into Dodge County in anticipation of projections that the 65-plus population will nearly double, while the percentage of young adults of the traditional working age will decline.
“How can we attract a future workforce here? How can we attract young people with families?” he asked. “I think a lot of communities in Wisconsin are wondering that, especially in rural communities.”
Jared Pinkus offers some insight into this — not just in his capacity as Sauk County’s community liaison, but also in his personal experience.
He’s 30. Raised in Cedarburg, a community near Milwaukee with roughly the same population as Portage, Pinkus, like a lot of coming-of-age people, couldn’t wait to see his hometown in his rearview mirror.
He moved to Denver, which boasts the nation’s 19th-largest metro area with 2.9 million people.
But when he started a family, he wanted to come back to Wisconsin to be closer to his relatives and his roots.
“Growing up in a community like that, you take it for granted,” Pinkus said. “You want to explore big cities, but then you realize the sense of community is truly unique.”
Glewen cautions, however, to look beyond the current statistics, and pay attention to future projections, which show that, by 2040, the over-65 cohort will be the dominant demographic throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest.
“There is no way we are going to keep up on replacing the individuals that are leaving the workforce,” she said.
Miller and Ebert had no previous Wisconsin roots; until about two months ago, they’d never lived anywhere but Alaska.
But the reasons they cite for putting down roots in Portage are numerous. They include:
- Affordable housing. According to Miller, $1,200 a month in Anchorage “gets you a two-bedroom apartment, and not a very good one.” A house of the type they rent in Portage, he said, easily would cost $2,500 a month in Anchorage.
- Work that pays. Miller said he loves his job at TriEnda. “It’s been a blast,” he said – noting that Ebert, too, hopes to start work at TriEnda as soon as child care can be worked out and Martin is enrolled in preschool.
- Quality schools. Marilyn is in second grade at Rusch Elementary School. “She absolutely loves it,” Ebert said. “She’s excited about the holiday program. She gets to play the xylophone.”
- Safety. Despite Alaska’s rugged, rural image, Anchorage, its largest city, has big-city crime problems that Ebert said she has not experienced in Portage. “Here, I walk with the kids, and I see two or three police officers. I don’t see anything that makes me feel scared, or that I shouldn’t be walking alone. I feel very safe.”
- Fun things to do, within easy driving distance. Miller said he’s not particularly drawn to the outdoor activities so popular in Wisconsin — hunting, fishing, camping — but he said he likes the proximity to Madison, where there are plenty of musical performances he wants to see. And in Portage, there are plenty of places to eat, he said; Pizza Ranch is one eatery that’s emerging as a family favorite.
All this bears out many of the findings of a 2017 Making Sauk: A Place Plan effort, Pinkus said.
The plan’s purpose, according to its introduction, is to explore the “social, physical, economic and regulatory” aspects of the community in an effort to make people of all ages want to come to the community and stay there.
In Dodge County, Olson said, such efforts require partnerships between city and county officials, businesses, economic development professionals and other segments.
Glewen pointed to efforts being made in Beaver Dam and Sauk County, to increase the stock of available housing, partly by building single-story apartment buildings to attract retirees, who might vacate single-family homes and make them available to younger families.
Other efforts entail attracting high-paying jobs, aiming for environmental sustainability such as the development of a solar power project at Beaver Dam City Hall, and touting outdoor recreational opportunities.
Economic opportunity and jobs are key, but they’re not the only considerations when people consider where to live.
Olson points to the “experience” of an area, which in the case of Beaver Dam and Dodge County includes things such as natural areas like the Horicon Marsh, strong public schools, gathering places and things to do.
Baraboo City Administrator Edward Geick said a mix of ages and demographics — children, young working adults and senior citizens at or near retirement — makes for a strong community.
“It’s a good thing to have a balance,” he said. “That’s what makes a community vibrant.”
Baraboo is headed in that direction, he said, largely because of efforts by residents themselves. The Baraboo Young Professionals Club is an example of how people, including young adults, can help shape the quality of life in a community.
One of the group’s activities, the Night Markets, which will next take place from 4-8 p.m. Friday, involve blocking off downtown streets for an evening and inviting people of all ages to gather to socialize and shop.
“That’s something new and refreshing for them to do,” Geick said. “They’re open to the entire community, but they’re aimed at the younger population.”
The city government had a role in making that happen, by passing ordinances clarifying the permitting process to close streets and other logistics related to the events.
But money remains a challenge in the city’s efforts to boost local entrepreneurism, Geick said. Changes are afoot in the federal Community Development Block Grant program that has funded efforts such as revolving loan funds, which could limit financial resources for communities to offer people seeking to start or grow businesses.
In Portage, attracting the kinds of retailers residents want is another challenge, Sobiek said.
National business entities pay close attention to communities’ demographic statistics because they want to know whether there are enough people available to be workers or customers.
The “worst, worse case” for a community is to have statistics showing a small middle class, with large percentages of the population grouped at the top and the bottom of the income scales.
In that respect, Portage has reason to be encouraged.
“It’s a much healthier mix here,” Sobiek said.
Follow Lyn Jerde on Twitter @LynJerde or contact her at 608-745-3587.