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Lisa Herr

Lisa Herr

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Monday that La Crosse-based 7 Rivers Alliance will get some unprecedented state and federal help this fall as it works to create an economic development blueprint for three of its rural counties.

“It’s highly unusual to see that level of collaboration. Furthermore, this is not the kind of project we’ve ever done in the state of Wisconsin,” said Lisa Herr, executive director of the 7 Rivers Alliance. “We’re so excited.”

The local regional economic development group was one of seven chosen for the USDA’s Stronger Economic Together program to promote regional rural development by giving local leaders access to resources through the USDA Rural Development and University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension offices.

“The cool thing is that we get coaching and planning assistance to be actively involved in developing this plan,” Herr said.

Staff members from UW Extension and USDA Rural Development will serve on a state resource team to help the 7 Rivers Alliance and economic development leaders from Monroe, Juneau and Jackson counties provide training and technical assistance as the three counties build up their shared economies.

“We’ll start with identifying the barriers to not only job creation, but also the big thing in those three counties is workforce attraction and workforce retention,” Herr said.

Herr said the goal of the program is to build on the good work already being done in those areas to identify priority projects, such as additional affordable transportation, regional systems, childcare and affordable housing.

“It’s going to be a really nice partnership to what we’re already doing,” said Monroe County economic development coordinator Steve Peterson.

The program started in 2010 and is just entering its sixth phase, which will provide in-depth data tailored to the region and help build a blueprint of the regions’ economic strengths.

“The idea behind this is bringing together researchers and experts around economic development to work with economic development leaders to build on local assets and strengths,” Herr said.

Both the outside help and the regional approach are huge benefits to rural communities, which can have budgets that are stretched thin.

“This gives us a lot more access to programs and sources of potential funding that we never have seen before,” Peterson said. “It has to be a collaborative effort for us to really get the biggest bang for our dollar.”

Not only does it make fiscal sense, it is a practical approach as the area has more similarities than differences.

“There is so much that we have in common. We have assets that are in common and struggles that are in common,” Peterson said.

Embracing a regional approach could also help court new businesses to the area, he said.

“Businesses that are looking to relocate or expand are really looking at regions, rather than a specific city,” Peterson said. “That’s a big change in economic development than what we’ve seen in the past.”

The research and planning process will kick off in September and last about a year, a large commitment for Peterson, along with his counterparts Chris Hardie in Jackson County and Terry Whipple in Juneau County.

Rather than include the entire area within its region, 7 Rivers Alliance focused on those three counties because each fits federally defined economic distress criteria.

“They all have a common need,” Herr said. “We’re at a place where our counties and our communities cannot afford to work individually on economic development because the need is so great.”

Herr submitted the application in April after getting the go-ahead from major leaders in local government and business leaders.

“We really had to demonstrate in those three counties that all of those key individuals would be available and would agree to participate in that planning process so we have everything we need, everybody in the room and willing to build a blueprint so we can then move forward,” Herr said.

Herr expects to learn a lot from the process that she will then apply throughout the 7 Rivers Alliance region, which includes portions of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

“We’re really excited to be what I’d like to consider a lead organization and then we can hopefully share what we gain from this with our partners throughout the state,” Herr said.

Other organizations chosen for SET include: North Central Indiana Regional Planning Council, Ozark Foothills in Missouri, East Central New Mexico, Central South Carolina SET Collaborative, Glacial Lakes in South Dakota and Texas Forest Country Partnership.

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City government reporter

Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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