In the mid 1980s, Northwest Wisconsin was slowly recovering from the recent recession. Its effects, like unemployment, lingered in the region, which lost more than 20 percent of its local employment base, including 40 percent of its manufacturing employment. The region of the state was relatively cut off from the rest of Wisconsin, accessible only via a two-lane road and long-distance phone calls.
After a 1985 Cooperative Extension economic analysis of the City of Superior, made with residents and leaders, the community banded together to act on one of the report’s recommendations — to better communicate the region’s needs to the state government, nearly 300 miles away in Madison. The next year, a group of locals based out of Superior came together for the first grassroots community lobbying effort in the state.
For the the 33rd “Superior Days,” held Feb. 20-21, 2018, 110 delegates, including 25 youth, from Douglas, Bayfield, Ashland and Iron Counties, traveled from their corner of the state — via a four-lane expressway accomplished via lobbying — down to Madison once again. In more than three decades, Superior Days has expanded to become a staple of Wisconsin’s annual lobbying agenda.
Like all successful events, Superior Days, takes months of organizing and planning — with continued support from Cooperative Extension.
“We start asking residents around the region, “What’s important? What would you want to talk to legislators from the region about?” says James Anderson, Douglas County Cooperative Extension Community and Natural Resource Development Department head. This was Anderson’s third year coordinating Superior Days. His role as an educator is to facilitate the community’s advocacy and to educate around best practices. No Extension staff actually lobby elected and appointed officials as part of Superior Days.
To prepare, citizens from Northwest Wisconsin meet in October and identify issues to discuss with state agencies and legislators in a group chaired by two local leaders. This year they were Douglas County Chairperson Mark Liebaert and Superior Mayor Jim Paine, who took part in Superior Days as a student. Early on, delegates break into lobbying teams. After a pair of all-day planning sessions the next month, a slate of issues is finalized and, in mid December, Anderson starts scheduling meetings with agencies in Madison. Lobbying teams, which include county and regional city officials, as well as business owners, retirees and high school and UW-Superior students, train to develop an in-depth understanding of the issues they’ll be advocating for.
“It’s that mix of community members and youth that really makes it unique,” says Anderson.
This year, the Superior Days delegation lobbied on behalf of SB 727, a bill to allow Superior to create what’s known as exposition districts. Cities with exposition districts can tax food, beverages and hotel rooms, as well to selling bonds to private investors, in order to cover costs for mixed-use developments. Under state law, Milwaukee is the only city with the standing ability to create an exposition district.
Other issues included increasing Medicaid reimbursement for nursing homes, public transportation and broadband — an important issue for much of Northern Wisconsin, which lacks the infrastructure for reliable high-speed internet service.
Donations from regional municipalities and businesses support the two-day event, which is based out of the Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club. Aside from lobbying and agency meetings, this year’s Superior Days schedule included presentations from a swathe of state agencies. The state broadband director, the Economic Development Corporation, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the office of Sen. Tammy Baldwin and the Wisconsin Counties Association addressed the delegates. The second day opened with a co-keynote from UW System President Ray Cross and Wisconsin Technical Colleges President Morna Foy. A reception the first evening of the event includes the Best of Wisconsin’s Northwest showcase of local projects and businesses.
“What’s really clear to me as I walked around the reception is people in Madison look forward to Superior Days,” Anderson says. “There are staffers and agency heads who look forward to this opportunity to renew relationships that they have with people from Northwest Wisconsin.”