Learning by Looking Beyond Our Borders


We in Door County like to think we’re unique. It’s a pride that goes beyond our environment and people – we think our problems are one-of-a-kind too.

Perhaps it’s a natural reflection of our isolated geography that we think we’re operating on an island. Heck, we don’t even like it when someone who lives in a neighboring town has the gall to make a suggestion to our town.

But some of the best stories I’ve written about have been sparked by ideas that, at first glance, had little to do with Door County and came by looking beyond our peninsula’s boundaries.

Last year I happened to hear about a book called Hollowing Out the Middle when I was listening to Radio Times, a National Public Radio program out of Philadelphia. The authors, Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas, had spent a year studying dying small towns in America’s Midwest, and their stories sounded remarkably similar to those I hear every day in Door County.

It inspired me to write a series of articles called Door County’s Brain Drain, addressing the issues we face attracting and keeping young workers and families on the peninsula. That series elicited more feedback than anything we’ve ever covered in the Pulse.

In several conversations with Carr he crystallized how our approach to education neglects the needs of the very people who have the most potential to re-invigorate our communities.

“Our educational resources and collective community resources are allocated to people who are likely to leave and not come back at the expense of those who will stay,” Carr told me. “The Stayers are the most overlooked resource and have the most potential to help these small towns, yet, relative to the Achievers, we do so little for them.”

In essence, our communities invest the fewest resources in those who have the potential to be our neighbors, our town board members, and our local business owners.

“It’s not a bad thing to help people go out and achieve things, but to do it at the expense of everyone else is wrong,” Carr says. “To say, ‘the rest of you just go get a job’ is not acceptable.”

In May, the Door County Economic Development Corporation (DCEDC) joined the conversation by bringing Carr to Door County to speak at its annual meeting. It became clear that the issues our Brain Drain series addressed were on the minds of many in the community, as Carr drew over 300 people to the event, the highest attendance DCEDC has ever drawn for its annual meeting.

I talked to dozens of local residents for the series, including several of the young people and families struggling to make a go of it here, such as Ephraim Tourism Administrator Rachel Willems. She moved back here from Minneapolis several years ago after finishing college and echoed Carr’s lament.

“You can feel like there’s this stigma about people who just like living here,” she said.

We profiled Tara and Aaron LeClair of Jacksonport, who moved home to be near family as they started one of their own.

Tara LeClair is directly involved in exactly the type of program that addresses those who may not be bound for a four-year university. She manages the Door Kewaunee Business and Education Partnership (DKBEP) that offers programs such as the High School Home Construction Program, in which high school students spend part of their day working at a home-building site.

It’s small efforts like DKBEP, the growth of one more leader, one more small business, that hold the most potential for America’s small towns, Carr said.

Elephant hunting is largely pointless. You need to focus on things that by their very nature can be decentralized,” Carr said, without limiting this criticism to manufacturing. “Big box retailing has really strangled small towns. Big agriculture and Wal-Mart have done more to decimate small-town America than anything else. Big boxes throw a few bucks at the local institutions they’re choking, and we buy it.”

Door County, to steal from the title of the acclaimed documentary about public schools in America, spends a lot of time waiting for Superman. We hope for a large manufacturer, a Wal-Mart, a Festival Foods, or a new shipbuilding contract to come in and rescue our community.

As we do so, Carr’s lesson – think small, think local – should not be overlooked.

I happen to be writing this from an office in Baileys Harbor, purchased last April by owners of an independent newspaper that was launched in the cozy confines of seasonal rental housing in Ellison 15 years ago. I share the office with seven co-workers in their late 20s and mid-30s. Six of them moved to Door County in their early 20s.

As the Brain Drain series showed, there is much Door County can do to attract more young people. But it requires a re-thinking of education, getting creative with the businesses we try to attract and nurture, and above all else, that we do more than wait.

It will also require that we be humble and look beyond the boundaries of our community silos for answers.