"The economic status of Washburn County, leading up until the spring – we were on a good trajectory in terms of economic growth and building the tax base," Joel Zimmerman, Washburn County Economic Development executive director, recalled at the Washburn County Board meeting on November 10.
Then COVID-19 hit.
Economic forecasts turned bleak.
While the pandemic still has portions of the economy in its squeezing clutch, Zimmerman sees some hope ahead.
"Washburn County, historically, in an economic recession, recovers from the recession before 90% of the other counties across the nation," he said. "We're in the top 10% for economic recovery. So that's always good news to continue to remember."
About a month into the pandemic Zimmerman had
started to receive calls about businesses wanting to start or expand a business in the county. Though that slowed as the pandemic dragged on, the businesse are still looking at making their home in the county.
"So I think we have some good things to look forward to as we build the tax base," he told the board.
Another plus – one he has heard from talking with title companies and real estate agents – is an influx of families turning into full-time residents.
Zimmerman said before this year 42% of the housing units in the county were second homes but he expects the data to show that the seasonal home count has decreased.
2020 has been a tough year, Zimmerman said, it has had highlightes, such as Tractor Supply moving into the former Shopko building, which has upped the county sales tax collection.
The county charges a half-point sales tax, which is collected by the state and refunded to the county.
"Our sales tax revenue reimbursement from the state this year is on track to meet or exceed what we were at last year, which is, you know, in a year like this has been, that's a really fantastic place to be in," Zimmerman said.
WASHBURN COUNTY– While the pandemic has had a cutting impact on some of the businesses in Washburn County this year, with some reporting a 30 to 40% drop in revenue, others are seeing a boom.
"We're pleased to tell you that our outdoor recreation has been through the roof, as we expected," Kaitlin Hanson, Washburn County Tourism Association (WCTA) assistant director, said during a report to the Washburn County Board at its regular meeting on November 10. "Some of our businesses are even recording record-breaking years, which is quite amazing during a pandemic.
"Our cabins and campgrounds have done quite well since June – they've been very full, if not full to capacity, and most are reporting an increase in business," she said. "Our retailers across the board, some are doing great, while others have seen quite a bit of a de
crease. So we've been trying to push retail as, well, the best that we can."
Hanson said the motels and restaurants have been hit "really hard," and staffing is a major concern for the majority of those businesses.
The pandemic has forced the WCTA to flip some of its marketing strategies this year.
"So our number-one priority is bringing outside dollars into Washburn County's economy. It's been a little bit more challenging this year," Michelle Martin, executive director of the WCTA, said in an understatement. "We've really had to adapt our marketing strategy, and really focus on promoting to the people who are already here."
Tourism is a huge economic force in the county. Tourism-related sales amounted to $47.1 million in 2019, with more than 525 jobs supported by tourism for an income of $11 million. Tourism generated $3.7 million in state and local taxes in the county in 2019.
Over the past year the WCTA-operated website washburncounty.org had 90,752 views, and 4,465 people were fans of the Facebook and Instagram pages.
"So we have a huge amount of people who are invested in Washburn County, which is amazing," Martin said.
So far this year 2,475 people have requested informational packets through email, double the previous year, "which is very hopeful for the future," she said.
Martin credits "amazing outdoor recreation" for the full cabins and camping over the past season.
"We're also seeing a lot of people planning for future trips," she said.
The focus for the year has been to inspire local residents as well as visitors, said Hanson. Or as a WCYA handout described it: "Inspire locals and visitors to fall in love with Washburn County, explore our area safely and enjoy the abundance of outdoor recreation amenities the area has to offer."
WCTA initiated a variety of promotions, including curbside support of local businesses, an outdoor photo challenge, a "Made in WashCo" blog to highlight businesses, and a local exploration blog to help people realize what is in their backyard.
The WCTA also concentrated on getting information to businesses to help them navigate through the uncertain times, in part through newsletters and Facebook groups.
"So everyone can kind of stay in the loop and get through it together," Hanson said.
With the tourism center in Spooner being a bit quieter this year, WCTA took the opportunity to evaluate its internal processes and the visitor center's operations while also revamping the marketing and public relations plan.
"So you're going to see a lot of changes coming with that in 2021," Martin said.
A huge step forward was the acquisition of the former washburncounty.com website which had been managed by someone else and was very outdated, she said. It now forwards to the .org website.
For the rest of this year and into the next, "We are going to capitalize on our outdoor recreation amenities since they are quite extravagant," Hanson said. "We will be rolling over some of our 2020 marketing plan to have aggressive spring, summer, fall marketing campaigns."
While this year's tourism message was more grassroots, next year's will shift to more public relations with a social media influencer program and targetted communication with travel writers and media outlets.
Martin said the WashCo blogs on the website received more than 5,500 views in the last year.
A resort owner told Martin that two different couples said that they prefer big cities and they thought Washburn County would be too rural for them, but they have already booked another stay for next year because they fell in love with the county.
A metal Washburn County welcome sign has been placed on Hwy. 63, and more are planned for the future. They cost approximately $5,500 each, and eventually all of the major highway entrances will have a welcome sign.
They will be just one of the welcome mats out for Washburn County visitors and residents alike.
SPOONER– After extensive discussion about Spooner Area School District's school attendance plans during the Spooner school board meeting on Monday night, Nov. 16, the board voted to switch inperson attendance to remote learning one more day this week and also the week following the Thanksgiving break, due to the spike in COVID-19 cases throughout the region.
Students attending school in-person will have a remote learning day each week on Wednesdays, and this week Thursday, Nov. 19, will be remote, too, with students returning on Friday for inperson classes and to get the materials they will need for the week after the regularly scheduled break.
Remote instruction will be in place for all SASD students the week of November 30 through December 4. No inperson learning will not take place during that period.
"The intent is for students who have been attending school in person to return to school at the current attendance level on December 7th," said District Administrator Dave Aslyn said after the
Students participating in the remote-only learning option will have no change to their programming for this period of time.
"Information about food service for children will be provided shortly," Aslyn said.
Families with questions about the change can contact their child's school office.
An article on what led to the board's decision and the potential for moving to a more hybrid mix of remote and in-person learning will be in next week's Spooner Advocate.
When the first hints of daylight begin to chase the darkness from the morning landscape on Saturday, Nov. 21, the 2020 Wisconsin gun deer season will begin. An army of blaze orangeclad hunters will head out into the cedar swamps, thick pines, hardwoods, and farmlands in search of that elusive whitetail buck. Across the Northland, schools will let out, businesses will empty a little early, and generations-old deer camps will fill again with friends who have walked the same trails for many years. Tales of past hunts will be retold, and new, young hunters will thrill to their first deer hunting experiences.
Such is the tradition and lifestyle of the Wisconsin deer hunt. More on the season is in the Buck Fever section and Sports/Outdoors.
WASHBURN COUNTY– Mosaic Technologies in Cameron is applying for a federal Economic Development Grant to develop a broadband highspeed fiber optic line in Washburn and Barron counties that could bring improved broadband access to 226 businesses in the two counties.
The Washburn County Board gave its support for the application at its monthly meeting on November 10.
"This expansion of connectivity and reliability is a matter of economic development which is critical to business expansion," the board's resolution said.
The expansion has a huge potential impact in creating and maintaining jobs in the county, especially as the pandemic has made virtual and online access more important than ever, Joel Zimmerman, Washburn County Economic Development Corporation (WCEDC) executive director, told the board.
He agreed it is critical to put the infrastructure in place, and he has been working with the Public Service Commission to improve the funding ratio. Broadband providers can get a 20% grant, but that is far from sufficient in the Northwoods where its low population density would give a broadband company an 87.5-year return on its investment in installing fiber optics to homes in some of the rural parts of the county, Zimmerman said.
That is why the county is working with Mosaic Telcom and writing a grant for another 80% in funding.
"The PSC is starting to real
ize that they need to up the percentage of the award for counties such as Washburn County to make it feasible for our providers that want to come in and work with us," Zimmerman said.
The limited funding and poor rate of return on the investment in rural installations has been the biggest obstacle to strengthening broadband access locally.
The county's technology committee and the WCEDC, along with many others in the county, have been been trying to expand broadband in the county for years.
"This is the first time we've actually had a provider who stepped up to say we're going to get some people connected," Supervisor Bob Olsgard said.
Asked by a supervisor whether Mosaic is planning on adding more infrastructure to the northern part of the county or just around Spooner and Shell Lake, Zimmerman said, "There are plans in place."
He called Mosaic's current plans "a big deal."
"The minimum speed will be 250 by 250 for this new project, which is not offered by anybody, not even close in the area," Zimmerman said.
Mosaic's broadband expansion would take place through 2020-21 and 2021-22, starting with laying more fiber optics next year.
"That would be blown out of the water" if the company gets the grant, Zimmerman said.
The board also committed to promoting telecommuting options and appointed the information technology director as the contact for coordinating telecommuting in the county.
The director's responsibilities will include:
• Coordinating and partnering with broadband providers, Realtors, economic development professionals, employers and employees, and other stakeholders.
• Collaborating with providers and employers to identify, develop, and market telecommuter-capable broadband packages.
• Partnering with providers and economic development professionals to develop common goals.
• Promoting workplaces such as incubators with telecommuting spaces.
• Being familiar with broadband mapping tools.
• Maintaining communication with the state broadband office.
• Making regular reports to the county's technology committee.