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  • Writer's pictureBrady Hummel

Community-Centered Rural Redevelopment: A Case Study of Potosi, Wisconsin

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

This essay is the fourth and final part of a project focused on defining and connecting social sustainability and community economic development in order to inform local policymaking to further improve communities’ ability to fully mobilize and achieve sustainable development. This essay takes the CED-SS model that I’ve developed in the previous two essays and uses it to see how rural communities can work within the model to move towards social sustainability. The main forum for this project is through the Wordpress blog, “Nexus Point: Social Sustainability and Community Economic Development.”

Policy Challenges Facing Rural Communities

Since we’ve explored how the CED-SS model can be applied to urban communities and the policy challenges that face them up to this point, it’s time to take on the bigger task of applying the model to rural communities across the country.

But what even qualifies as a rural community? There’s not a universally accepted definition, or even a somewhat cohesive conversation like for urban areas, which makes it more difficult to understand the policy landscape of these communities.

There are a few predominant definitions for “rural” widely used in the community development canon which at least agree that rural communities can be designated because they’re not urban.

“The [U.S.] Census Bureau identifies two types of urban areas:
- Urbanized Areas (UAs) of 50,000 or more people
- Urban Clusters (UCs) of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people.
‘Rural’ encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area.” — source

Well, that’s not helpful.

“[U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Services] researchers and others who analyze conditions in ‘rural’ America most often study conditions in nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) areas, defined on the basis of counties. Counties are the standard building block for collecting economic data and for conducting research to track and explain regional population and economic trends. Nonmetro counties include some combination of:
- open countryside,
- rural towns (places with fewer than 2,500 people), and
- urban areas with populations ranging from 2,500 to 49,000
that are not part of larger labor market areas (metropolitan areas).” — source

That’s getting there. But there are a number of nonmetro counties like this around the country, and they are not all the same as the next one.These rural communities can be divided into four different categorizations:

  • Urban periphery — rural areas within a 90-minute commute of urban employment, services, and social opportunities

  • Sparsely populated — areas where population density is low and often declining, and isolation limits the demand for traditional services, employment, and social opportunities

  • High amenity — rural areas of significant scenic beauty, cultural opportunities, and attractiveness to wealthy and retired people

  • High poverty — rural areas characterized by persistent poverty or rapid declines in income.” — source

That makes my job a lot harder. But it’s accurate: these four categories of rural communities provide us with a rich definition of the various types of communities and can gear us in how we analyze the policy challenges that are common throughout all of these categories.

An obvious common thread throughout all four rural community types goes back to the fact that they are defined by being non-metro: they don’t have the population density, demand, tax base, and abundance of readily available goods and services that urban areas do. So, a major development challenge is to find a way to provide these necessities of life to the residents of these communities.

If these services aren’t provided and easily accessible, there is a risk to the survival of the rural middle class, as those who have the means to move to the city will leave the rural communities. Increasing urbanization leaves those who do not have the means to move in rural communities with inadequate access to necessary resources, rural poverty that is difficult to address with policy interventions.

The geographically-dispersed population poses challenges in terms of getting residents to identify with the community, as their neighbors could be a mile or further away and aren’t in clos proximity like in urban areas, which could make building broad-based buy-in for community-level policymaking.

So, it’s pretty clear that, fundamentally, the CED-SS model cannot be applied similarly to rural communities as it was to urban areas, as both categories face uniquely different obstacles to foster community economic development and building social sustainability.

“Good Ol’ Potosi”: A Rural Case Study

After laying vacant and abandoned for 36 years, the historical hometown brewery of Potosi, Wisconsin opened its doors again. The story leading up to its return and of its impact on the community and surrounding region is a perfect case study of how the CED-SS model can apply to rural communities across the country.

Potosi, a village of 700 right off the shores of the Mississippi River’s stretches along Wisconsin’s southeastern borders with Iowa and Illinois, is fondly known as the “Catfish Capital of Wisconsin” and was originally a lead mining town. But the heart and soul of the village lies in a 30,000 square foot facility just west of Main Street: the home of the Potosi Brewing Company.

Started in 1852, before goods and services could be easily transported over long distances, the beer was originally meant to quench the thirst of the miners in the local area. “At its peak,” though, “the Potosi Brewery had grown to be the fifth largest in Wisconsin, shipping a variety of labels inluding Good Old Potosi, Holiday, Garten Brau, Augsburger, and others to destinations throughout the United States.” The brewery became the main employer in the little village; every resident of Potosi had a connection to the town brewery.

That was, until it closed down in 1972, a victim of increasing operating costs and broader market forces.

Abandoned Potosi Brewery, 2004

And there it laid, empty and abandoned, until it was bought in 1995 by Gary David, a local artist and woodworker (not to be confused with one Larry David). It was an uphill battle from the start: there was widespread damage to nearly every building in the complex and a ton of deferred maintenance, all of which took almost three years to rebuild and get operational again.

There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but huge progress was made in 1999 during a community meeting that generated widespread buy-in from many residents. “Numerous suggestions, as well as additional support,” was offered from numerous community members, one of which was the creation of the Potosi Brewery Foundation to “reconnect the community to a part of its cultural heritage.”The Foundation, headed by Mr. David, took the lead on the $7.5 million restoration project to both maintain the historical significance of the brewery while getting it operational and competitive.

The project got a huge boost in momentum when the American Breweriana Association announced in 2004 that Potosi would be home to the new National Brewery Museum on the site of the brewery complex. This gave the project enormous momentum and already provided some tangible benefits for the community, through increased tourism revenues and visitors to the village.

The grand reopening of the brewery was in 2008, and it’s seen great success for the company, foundation, and community since then. To pay homage to the rich past of the town, the incredible community effort that revitalized the brewery, and the bright future ahead for the village, the brewery hung a sign that proudly proclaims: “Because of YOU, the good ol’ days are back.”

“While it is the brewery’s product — beer — that gets the headlines and brings in the visitors, Potosi’s accomplishments are rooted in the people of the village who revived and re-branded an important part of their history, embraced historic preservation, and developed an unique business model that has led to its success today.”

This is where the CED-SS model can come into play. Frank Fiorenza, the Mayor of Potosi, categorized this connection well: “The brewery project was never an end in itself…I always saw it as a catalyst for additional economic development in the village.” The project has always been bigger than just rebuilding and reopening the brewery complex; it’s been a rebuilding and reopening process for the community, as well.

The policy intervention, in this scenario, would be the process of redeveloping and reopening the brewery with the involvement and support of the community throughout. This, clearly, is aimed at directly improving the village’s economic capital, through new businesses, new jobs, and new sources of income for the community.

“During the first year of its reopening, the brewery had about 50,000 visitors from every state and over thirty countries. In 2012, it is estimated that over 70,000 people passed through the small village to visit the brewery and museum, as well as to enjoy the variety of outdoor recreational opportunities in the area such as swimming, hiking, and fishing…In its [first] four years of operation, the brewery has provided a major economic boost to Potosi, creating 70 direct jobs and showing consistent financial returns from an increase in beer and merchandise sales.”

A 2009 Economic Impact Assessment, written by the Southwestern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and the Grant County Economic Development Corporation, found that the brewery project had a “$4.3 million impact on the region, generated by wages, beer and merchandise sales, and additional tourist revenue.”

The redevelopment of the brewery was also aimed at improving the cultural capital of the village, as it preserved and revitalized an institution that is central to the community’s culture and history. Having the brewery opened up the door, as well, for the brewery museum, along with a transportation museum and an “Interpretive Center highlighting the historical and economic importance of the nearby Mississippi River” to Potosi’s history. There is also a growing culture of brewing and beer in the village now, as it holds its BrewFest every summer to bring the community and other locals together in an event for the entire village.

All of these developments, which grew out of the brewery reopening, clearly provided a strong economic and cultural foundation for the community, and offered wide opportunities for everyone in the village and the surrounding areas. Let’s revisit our earlier definition of opportunity:

“[Building opportunity for all] require[s] a fundamental change in the governing philosophy of a community, a shift in perspective on local policymaking, in order to reach for the full potential of everyone together. A focus on the collective benefit rather than the individual benefit.”

There are a lot of ways that the brewery redevelopment project could have focused exclusively on the benefit of a few individuals; however, it focused completely on the benefit and improvement of the community as a whole. The decision to redevelop the complex, also, was not the decision of the normal local policymakers in a hierarchical way, but was mobilizied through the collective interest and action of the local residents around the project in order to improve the general well-being of the town and to provide more opportunities for all.

And, finally in our CED-SS model, there’s the long-term improvement in quality of life over time:

“While the sign outside the brewery proclaims that Potosi’s ‘good ol’ days’ have returned, the town’s economic development strategies that are rooted in a creative approach to main street redevelopment have set Potosi on a path to enjoy many more good days long into the future.”

And it all started with the community getting behind redeveloping one project. It can happen just like that, and Potosi will reap the benefits from that process for many more good days to come.

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