Baldwin hears concerns facing area

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis, held a round table discussion at Crivello’s, 818 Main St., in Oconto on Friday to talk about rural economic development, infrastructure issues and more with local elected officials, small business owners and education leaders.

The round table discussions, Baldwin said, are ways for her “to focus on what’s next,” and figure out the “outstanding issues” that Wisconsin citizens are facing today, at work, at home and in society. She said she mainly likes to listen and let the round table participants voice their thoughts on “a whole range of issues and challenges.”

Oconto Mayor Lloyd Heier said that while Oconto County and the surrounding areas are rich in natural resources, parks and water, the main employers of the area are manufacturers. He said he would like to see more encouragement in schools to connect kids with manufacturing companies, as there is a shortage of skilled labor in the local work force.

Heier added that he had also noticed a disparity between the amount of compensation his two daughters, who work in education, and his son, who makes more money because he works in manufacturing. He acknowledged that his daughters had more school debt than his son, and he said he was concerned that if the income disparity is not addressed, Wisconsin will lose educators because they will seek better opportunities elsewhere.

Attendees said the major issues facing rural businesses aren’t any different than the issues facing companies around the country — large amounts of workers reaching retirement age, migration by workers for jobs, a lack of interest in manufacturing jobs — but the problems are multiplied exponentially for rural communities. The general consensus was that residents and representatives of urban areas don’t understand the needs of smaller, rural communities.

Jan Stranz, vice president-member services at Oconto Electric Cooperative, used broadband internet access as an example and compared connection efforts to the rural electrification efforts of the early 1900s. Heier added that local tourism was also dependent upon online connections with travelers. Baldwin agreed, and said she had heard many stories during her time as a senator where high-speed internet access could make or break a business’s success.

Baldwin steered the conversation toward agriculture, and asked Mike Dama, owner and president of Dama Plumbing & Heating Inc. and president of the Crivitz School Board, whether or not his business was tied to agricultural success. Dama said that his business was not as tied to farming as it used to be, and that he had noticed a decrease in the number of farms in the area over the years, even if their operations had grown. He admitted that there was some animosity between local farms, stemming from competition over business and land, and other participants pointed out that the local farms were being hit hard by low milk prices, immigration issues and recent tariffs.

Stan Gruszynski, a Marinette native and former Democratic member of the Wisconsin State Assembly’s 71st District, former director of the Global Environmental Management (GEM) Rural Leadership and Community Development Program at UW-Stevens Point, and former Wisconsin State Director of U.S.D.A Rural Development, encouraged Baldwin to change the system to help small businesses and give them tax breaks, rather than award tax breaks to big companies that won’t put money back into the smaller communities. Cheryl Detrick, president and CEO of NEWCAP Inc., agreed, and said that it was hard for entrepreneurs in small towns to set out and become successful while transitioning from working a full-time job.

As for finding and maintaining happy employees, the group agreed that businesses should focus on making sure employees are compensated fairly and feel valued in their jobs. Heier said it comes down to short-term vs. long-term thinking on the company’s part, and Dama added that the new demographic of younger workers have different needs and expectations in their jobs than the previous generations.

“I can’t survive without my employees, so we have to compensate them well,” Dama said.

Baldwin argued that some of the difference comes down to employee-owned companies vs. publicly-traded companies, and the different choices they make when it comes to their workforce and the tax breaks they receive.

“They’re so distant from the communities that their workers actually live in,” she said.

Gruszynski said he felt part of the disconnect between businesses and their rural workers comes from a lack of understanding of legislators about what rural communities need.

“What I noted was a general attitude, on Washington’s part, that rural communities, smaller communities, were kind of an unfortunate stepchild,” he said. “When in fact, the realities are that’s where the resources are … It would be nice to see kind of a unified federal initiative to address rural needs.”

Gruszynski suggested urban areas be educated about the importance of rural communities, and end the “benign neglect” rural communities are receiving from the government.

Baldwin’s visit to Oconto was part of a trip around northeast Wisconsin, with stops in Green Bay and Neenah along the way. Baldwin will face a Republican challenger in the general election on Nov. 6 after the primary election on Aug. 14.

Read more at the Eagle Herald.