The curious case of Walworth County: How it stopped growing and what that means for residents

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Xavier Ward
Monday, November 21, 2016

ELKHORN—Walworth County is not a bustling metropolitan area.

In fact, people move there to get away from that, Williams Bay Realtor Dave Curry says.

Through the 1990s until about 2008, Walworth County was one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, according to census numbers from the Wisconsin Department of Administration.

Since then, however, population growth in the county has stagnated.

Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, said the reason for flat growth is simple: The number of people dying matches the number being born or moving to the county.

He said the alliance predicted slow growth from 2010 to 2040. The trend is an issue for the whole state, not just Walworth County, Berry said.

“One of Wisconsin's biggest challenges is that few people leave the state, but few people come,” Berry said.

For some, flat population growth is not worth a worry. But for others, slowing growth can make modernizing public infrastructure more difficult.

Flat growth limits growth in the tax base, County Administrator David Bretl said.

The county's ability to raise the tax levy depends heavily on new construction, Bretl said. While a flat tax levy is a nice break for taxpayers, it doesn't help the county much.

The prevailing thought at the county level is that the county must develop, Bretl said.

“Where are young people going to work? Are we attracting businesses that will contribute to the tax base?” Bretl said.

No one likes higher taxes, but the county needs to be able to provide services to its residents, he said.

Berry said a county's smaller population can force wage rates higher. However, he said maintaining some level of growth is important for maintaining a tax base.

Others are less worried.

Elkhorn City Administrator Sam Tapson thinks the situation in Walworth County will work out fine.

“It ebbs and flows,” Tapson said, referring to growth.

Curry also isn't concerned. He doesn't believe the county needs to grow to do well economically.

Curry was born and raised in Williams Bay.

“When I was growing up here, do you know what Williams Bay had? Three gas stations, a handful of restaurants, a barbershop, a few Realtors, an attorney and a marina,” he said.

“You know what Williams Bay has now?” Curry asked. The same amenities, he said.

Despite residential development, Williams Bay has not grown much commercially, Curry said. He thinks the reason is that there's no need for it.

The population swells in the summer with tourists visiting the lakes, but few part-time residents use the schools and other infrastructure, Curry said.

“It's the perfect storm. If you could design a county, it'd be Walworth County,” he said.

If the county wants to grow, it needs to stop developing homes and focus on jobs, Curry said.

“You don't grow a population by offering them houses. You grow a population by offering them jobs,” he said.

But the county thrives on tourism, not production, so the likelihood of exponential job growth is slim, Curry said.

Keefe Realty CEO Steve Biers thinks growth is important, too, but the county doesn't appear to be desperate for exponential growth.

Not wanting any growth is overly idealistic, Biers said. But he noted that a healthy level of planned growth in the tax base is critical if the county wants to address issues such as income and housing inequality.

“You can't stick your head in the sand and not grow,” Biers said.

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