Filling in Door County’s Age Gap

Door County is losing its young people rapidly. Students, young adults, and young families are going the way of the Dodo on our peninsula.

But our sad future as the Door County Shady Shores Retirement Community is not inevitable. We can reverse the trends, but there is no magic bullet. Rather, it will take many small steps, small solutions that will get us five, 15, or 25 more young people here. We need to accept that it will come in small doses.

Here’s a starter idea that might sound xenophobic. It’s not.

We need to stop relying so heavily on Eastern Europeans to supplement our tourism workforce. It’s not because they aren’t great workers – they are. They put many American workers to shame (especially in the first year before our American habits rub off on them).

It’s not because I don’t like them – I do. I’ve learned a lot about the world, about the full breadth of human experience, through stunted conversations over an 8-hour kitchen shift with Lithuanian prep cooks and Polish dishwashers.

But it’s time to end this reliance simply because it is eroding our base of young residents and entrepreneurs. Each summer for the past dozen years or so Door County businesses have imported hundreds of foreign workers on J1 student visas to supplement their staff through the season.

Most work hard, as much as 18 hours a day at two or three jobs. They earn good money, but then they go home. Maybe they come back another summer. Possibly they bring a friend. Rarely, one of them finds a soul mate and settles here.

Contrast that with the average Wisconsin or Illinois college student who works here for the summer. Most have at least a passing familiarity with the peninsula, if not a life-long connection. In their first summer they usually bring up old friends or college buddies to spend a few days at the beach with them or meet their new Door County friends.

They have a good time, and each of those friends comes back again on their own, or gets their own job here.

The summer college job is the best tourism promotion program we have. One summer spent here by a college sophomore and the odds are probably close to 95 percent that she’ll return to visit at least once in the next five years, and probably far more often than that. Odds are probably 75 percent that she’ll introduce at least one other person to the county at some point before she’s 23 – either a friend, boyfriend, or family member. These workers develop a lifelong bond to the county that brings them back dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the rest of their lives. They introduce their kids, and grandkids, and their kids friends to the peninsula.

Many stay here at least one year, or come to work for a summer and never leave. They establish their own business, or find a job they love, and plant roots. The chances of growing a connection once we get them here are fantastic.

But how do we get them here? For one, we don’t throw up our hands and say “well, they aren’t around anymore.” We have to recruit them, especially since we have 200 fewer high schoolers in the county today than we did a decade ago. That’s 25 – 35 fewer kids coming home from their first year of college each May in need of a summer job. We need to recruit at colleges around the valley, Milwaukee, Madison and Western Wisconsin areas.

This pitch can’t be the same as the visitor bureau’s pitch to baby boomers. We need to let them know there are great jobs here, but also other great young people. Sell them on long days at the beach, evenings at parties with new friends and the experience of catching live music at Camp David or local taverns. Or kayaking the Mink River, wind-surfing, or biking the trails of Peninsula State Park or Newport.

Offer them packages with free tickets for a show, a concert, a sunset cruise or a ferry pass to Washington Island. After all, we want them to know what to suggest to our visitors. Our seasonal workers are our ambassadors.

We ought to build seasonal housing in each community. Convert a few old barns into small apartments (or a bunch of those condos languishing on the market). Follow Camp David’s lead. Expand bike lanes so a car is not imperative.

This won’t solve all our problems attracting young people back to the county, but it’s a start. Young people are attracted to numbers. A great night at the bar doesn’t require a band, or a promotion, or a ridiculous special. It usually just requires a critical mass that builds on itself.

The same is true for community. The amenities are largely here – parks, beaches, arts, the right pace. What’s missing is shelter and jobs.

If we can connect the dots, we can start to turn the ship around.

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