News: Wisconsin





Welcome to Minnesota

Twin Cities workers find comforts of home in St. Croix, Wisconsin's fastest-growing county

Posted: Feb. 18, 2006

Hudson - Michael Goodman talks Minnesota politics, keeps a Minnesota cell phone number and can even see his home state outside his kitchen window.


But here's the twist: The 39-year-old chef lives and works in Wisconsin. He's part of the population tidal wave to hit St. Croix County, a wave that has seen this corner of western Wisconsin transformed into the state's fastest-growing county.

It's a wave that has created profound change as St. Croix County morphs from rural heartland to suburban hotbed, influencing where people live, work and shop, perhaps even how they vote.

"This is a suburb of the Twin Cities," Goodman says. "If you want to see evidence of that, just look at Interstate 94 at 6:30 in the morning. Nothing is coming this way. That nucleus of tolerable travel is expanding. I wish stuff would slow down. But I moved out here, too."

Goodman and many others have moved to an area still defining itself, pitched between rolling farmland and big-box stores, grain silos and drive-through windows at chain coffee shops. The county also is wedged between two states, two cultures, with divided loyalties around sports and politics, between the Packers and Vikings, Badgers and Gophers. When some people around here talk about "the governor," they're referring to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, not Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle.

"I still call my area Winnesota. We are in Wisconsin, but it sure is hard to remember it," said state Rep. Kitty Rhoades (R-Hudson).

In many ways, St. Croix County is the modern American dream in miniature - a home on 2 acres, good schools for children and a tolerable commute to work.

While developers and big-city mayors make efforts to lure people back to America's inner cities with galleries, theaters and loft apartments, another trend is at play, the continued growth of the suburbs and exurbs. Getting a larger house, on a larger plot of land, even if it means moving farther from the city, remains "a personal aspiration for most people," says Joel Kotkin, a futurist, consultant and author.

"People are going to small towns, college towns, developments on the exurban edge," he says. In a recent report, Kotkin notes, "Since 1950 more than 90% of all the growth in U.S. metropolitan areas has been in the suburbs."

A short drive to another world

St. Croix County feels almost a world away from the hustle and bustle of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which lie within easy commuting distance. From Hudson, it's about a 25-minute drive to St. Paul. There's open space, farms and woods, plus the scenic St. Croix River. But there is the first glimmer of sprawl, a few strip malls, chain restaurants and motels, homes sprouting on former farm fields.

Hudson provides an example of both worlds, the new and old. Out by the interstate, strip malls dominate. Retired farmers gather in a Country Kitchen, built in the middle of a parking lot.

Downtown, looking out on the St. Croix River, brick buildings are older, grander, densely packed. There's a neighborhood of fine old Victorian homes just off the main street.

"I like the old school better than the new school," says Goodman, whose San Pedro Café includes a polished bar, exposed brick wall and wood-burning oven. "I like the recycling of old buildings."

But a lot of people like the new things, the convenience of big-box stores and fast-food restaurants.

Old Hudson was built for a different age, an age when people walked to school and jobs. The new Hudson, the new St. Croix County, is built for the age of the auto.

For years, a steady stream of workers commuted to corporate jobs in Minnesota, employed by the likes of 3M and Andersen Corp. In fact, 44% of all workers who live in St. Croix County work across the border, according to the latest census figures.

Now, some workers also are able to find jobs on the Wisconsin side of the border at a business park on the edge of Hudson.

St. Croix County's growth is impressive. Since the 2000 census, there are 12,529 new residents, boosting the county's population to an estimated 75,686, as of Jan. 1, 2005. The rate of growth is 19.8%, according to the Wisconsin Department of Administration.

In the same period, Dane County actually added more new residents, some 31,771, but at a lower rate of growth.

"I don't think the explosion is a current event," says Jack Breault, Hudson's mayor. "It is something that started to occur through the 1980s and 1990s and now into the new century. It's a spillover effect because of our close proximity to the Twin Cities metro area. Literally, the engine that makes St. Croix County go is really the Twin Cities, the larger employers over there, the dynamic nature of that area."

The trend is expected to be maintained through 2030, with St. Croix County anticipated to experience the highest rate of growth in the state.

"I think the growth is a solid testimonial to what happens when you have access to good jobs," Rhoades says.

Of course, growth presents challenges - providing more classrooms for children, dealing with a rise in crime, stresses on water and sewage as homes replace farms.

"The reason a lot of people like to live here is we like the openness, the space," says Eric G. Johnson, the county district attorney. "You're not always looking at buildings and billboards. I hope we can keep that same look - a lot of rolling hills, trees, forests."

What lures people here? More house for the money, when compared with Minnesota real estate. Last year, 3,740 homes were sold in St. Croix County at an average price of $195,213. There's a trade-off, though: Wisconsin's property taxes are higher.

Rural life is vanishing

Still, people continue to arrive, pushing development farther east, away from Hudson.

"People used to think that if you went past Hudson you fell off the face of the earth," says Heidi Marsh, a real estate agent in New Richmond.

Marsh says it still feels like small-town Wisconsin since the county is "just far enough away" from the Twin Cities. Yet she predicts that "in five years, it won't feel that way."

The small-town feel still exists in a place such as New Richmond. Sure, a new Wal-Mart has gone up in a cornfield. But downtown, children rush out of school and head over to Sweet Greetings to scoop up chocolate and other candies.

"You still know the neighbors," says the store owner, Judy Wojciechowski.

But among some, there is a sense that an older way of life, more rural, rooted around farming, is vanishing.

The future belongs to those such as Ron Derrick, 42, a second-generation homebuilder, who has seen the boom up close, buying and developing land.

"You can't buy land in the cities," he says.

Derrick says the newcomers are slowly changing the county's character. There are new faces, new neighbors, to go along with all those new homes, subdivisions and roads. Little shops give way to shopping malls. Politics change, too.

"As people move in, it typically becomes a little more Republican," Derrick says.

The county is now represented by three Republicans in the state Assembly. President Bush carried the county in 2000 and 2004. But the bigger news out of the 2004 election was this: More than 12,000 additional voters turned out for the last presidential race. President Bush even showed up for a rally in Hudson.

State Rep. Andy Lamb (R-Menomonie) says voters are moderate and expect their representatives to "work both sides of the aisle."

"I certainly don't see it as a hard, conservative area," he says.

But it is an area where residents and politicians will have to adapt to change because change is coming fast, as newcomers arrive, homes get built, and farmland gives way to development.

To see the future, all Chas Garbe, 59, does is exit his 123-year-old farmhouse in the Town of Hudson and focus on a bluff a half-mile away. There used to be a farm out there, he says. Now, there are homes, dozens of them.

"Look over the countryside and there are homes everywhere," Garbe says. "To me, those are fields that don't have to be houses."

Garbe has seen this all before. When he was a boy, his dad farmed land on the outskirts of St. Paul. As development encroached, the family picked up stakes in the mid-1950s and moved across the state line to Wisconsin.

"Fifty years later, we're on the edge (of suburbia) again," Garbe says.

But this time, there's no moving away from the growth. For Garbe, whose three sons have left the farm, the future is pretty clear. Will there be a Garbe farm in 30 years' time?

"No," he says. "Definitely no."

From the Feb. 19, 2006 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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