Localism – What’s the Attraction?


As I drive to work here in Wisconsin Rapids, I cross the bridge where the view of the river is stunningly peaceful, with the mystical morning mist rising off the calm water reflecting the warm early morning sunlight as it surrounds the pristine wooded islands. It takes me all of five minutes by car to make my journey to work – one of the beauties of living in a smaller community. I can get to most places in town within five minutes.

It does not mean, however, that I lack access to the same amenities that an urban dweller has. When I’m looking for my arts and culture fix, I don’t need to go far; there is a new show opening at Alexander House, one of the local galleries which regularly features accomplished artists with local ties. The local theatre productions rival professional quality, as several of the key performers and producers are professionals, who choose to live in an area that offers a better educational experience and quality of life for their families.

You can get the local word on “what’s happening” by heading to the local coffee shop, pub or walking to the post office and greeting other “locals,” drinking in the character of the community. In a flash, I can be at the airport, and be on my way to countries around the world. Although the airport is 45 miles away, I can actually get there in less time (under 45 minutes), than someone living in Chicago or Minneapolis can get to the airport in those cities. I might pass a total of 25 cars in my entire drive to the airport, and at the airport a long line to check in at the kiosks might be two people ahead of me. Air fare from our central Wisconsin airport, even to international locations, is usually cheaper than if I fly from any of the surrounding big metropolitan airports.

Five years ago, I purchased my three-bedroom 1300 square foot ranch home two blocks from the seven-mile Riverwalk trails for $75,000. My neighbor, the previous mayor, mows my lawn and does odd jobs for me. I have the beauty of woods and water that is easily accessible and safe to go alone and enjoy. I am tapped into the world and information super-highway with redundant high-speed internet access. I live the good life without the long lines, high costs or hassles of the city. It also offers me an opportunity to be civically engaged and give back to the community, as well. This is why I choose to live in the heart of Wisconsin. I want “where I live” to offer exceptional quality to enhance my life, and it does here in America’s Heartland.

The pace of our lives increased exponentially in the last half century, and continues to escalate at a rate that is staggering. During this evolution, we went through the period of being caught up in this fast pace and trying to “keep up with the Jones” and the speed of technology advancement. We were attracted to the fast lane and glitz of urban lifestyle, which symbolized chic and sophisticated. The Baby Boomers, in their career primetime, driven to succeed, gravitated to the coasts and large metropolitan areas to be where it was “happening.” As a result, housing costs in these regions skyrocketed, the highways became unbearable during commuting hours, adding hours on both ends of the already longer work day necessary to keep up with the increasing global competition and faster and faster pace. Crime rates soared. People became numbers and life was about mass production, cookie cutter franchises, big box shopping and having the most goods – a popular Calvin and Hobbes cartoon reflected this fad, “He who dies with the most toys wins!”

Now as the Baby Boomers are entering retirement and their children are having children, we are noticing a trend that may bring new life to the Midwest and the patchwork quilt character that rural communities offer. No longer does the rat race of the urban life style hold a compelling calling. A resurgence of wanting something more real, more balanced, more representative of our agricultural roots and our rural heritage, which made the country rich in Americana, seems to be calling. The new trend that is emerging is localism – the desire to have a strong sense of place and connection to where we live, what we eat, how we participate in civic engagement.

As Baby Boomers look to wind down, they are seeking a more relaxed atmosphere and authentic sense of place. This is also the demographic that is beginning to drive the trend towards self-employment, often using their acquired professional expertise from their high powered career investment as the product, and seizing the opportunity that technology and mobility provide to be located in a place that appeals to their quality of life factors. Their children, who are entering that phase of life, where they are having children, are seeking that housing affordability, safe neighborhoods, beautiful natural landscape and good public education system for their kids, often found in the upper Mid-west. This generation that is now beginning to make an impact in the workforce, exhibits a high level of civic responsibility in its decision making. Put that together with the Baby Boomers growing sense of awareness that our past actions of ignoring our affects on our environment must change and that starts with changing our own habits and choices in what we buy and how we live, creates relatively large movement towards “local.”

An article, by Marian Burros, in the New York Times, published on Aug. 6, 2008, stated,
“One of the biggest brand names in food this summer doesn’t carry a trademark. It’s the word ‘local,’ which has entered the language as a powerful symbol of high quality and goodness.”

So, what is the “local” appeal? It is the character and quality of life that provides a sense of place – a reminiscence feeling of authenticity and knowing the source of where things come from, who made it and how it was grown. There is a desire to make the personal connection and create an experience in the purchase of a product. That experience often equates to wanting to have that sense of place association. The sense of place character is one that has a unique quality, a distinction and flavor that brings out the emotional response which translates to being an experience of culture and belonging.

As we have come to grips with growing fuel prices and climate change, a sense of social responsibility has grown. We see a growing social movement to also protect the character of our communities by revitalizing downtowns, curtailing big box retail development, seeking non-franchise purchasing experiences, and patronizing local specialty shops, geared toward sustaining that sense of unique character and experience that a community offers. Even in urban areas, the sense of neighborhood culture and pride is having a resurgence.

As we experience the personal economic affects of globalization and the resulting loss of jobs due to sending our production work overseas, we have seen a rising understanding of the connection and benefit that demanding “local” provides, to our area economies, our own families, our neighbors and friends. Supporting “local” gives people the good feeling of “making a difference” and playing a responsible role in the sustainability of our communities, while also stimulating that sense of pride and authenticity. It says we have a choice in the matter, and that choice matters. “Localism” is not only good for our economy, it represents a sense of social responsibility and desire to sustain our patchwork quilt of Americana that represents our country’s heritage and character.

Connie Loden is the Executive Director for Heart of Wisconsin Business & Economic Alliance that coordinates community economic development projects in Central Wisconsin. Connie is an internationally recognized leader in rural development, holding leadership roles with the Community Development Society and National Rural Development Partnership.