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Guest Column: Come home, Marissa

in Opinion

by Keene Winters

It is time to talk about technology—computer technology to be exact.  No discussion on life in the 21st Century would be complete without it.

The first three installments in this series on a strategic vision for Wausau centered around natural resources like water and the ability to grow ginseng. Now, I would like to share a couple of ideas on how to position this community in an on-line world.

Keene Winters served two terms on the Wausau City Council from April 2012 to April 2016. (Photo credit: Life Touch)

What if you turned on your computer or picked up your phone, and the data was gone? It is a question that keeps a lot of corporate planners up at night. Disaster and recovery planning is an increasingly important field. Everyone is looking for ways to keep data safe.

Wausau, as it turns out, is one of the safest places on earth. We do not have hurricanes, typhoons, mud-slides, monsoons, floods, tsunamis, wild fires, volcanoes or earthquakes. We do have tornadoes, but we are not in “Tornado Alley” like the plains states. All told, we are not subject to the kinds of geological or weather events that destroy large swaths of infrastructure.

There are other risks to be considered as well. For example, if your facilities are in South Korea, there is a possibility of war.  If you are in Taiwan, you could be forcibly repatriated by the Chinese. And, there are lots of places in the world where the rule of law protecting private property is not as well established.  Compared to all these places, Wausau has a competitive advantage for safeguarding and storing critical programs and data.

In fact, if a person wanted to blast a vault into one of the granite hillsides around Wausau, he or she could count on having one of the most secure facilities in the world. So, why are we not promoting Wausau as a place for data storage facilities and server farms? Life in the 21st Century depends on keeping programs and data safe. We can do that. The need for data storage is only increasing.

The explosion of wireless and smart devices does more than create a demand for data storage. It also allows an increasing number of professions to work from home. We should make an effort to recruit those people to move to Wausau.

We can recruit work-from-home professionals based on lifestyle. As some of you may know, Marathon County now ranks 9th among Wisconsin’s counties as a tourism destination. Much of that is attributable to active sports tourism. There is the Badger State Winter Games, the new soccer fields in summer, a world-class curling facility, and in-town whitewater course, skiing at Rib Mountain and biking at 9-Mile Swamp, the Mountain Bay Trail and Sylvan Hills Park.

That is a lifestyle we can sell to married professionals in their 30s and 40s. A person can work from home, have kids attend a neighborhood school and stay fit by biking and kayaking. A person would also be a short commuter flight from Chicago or Minneapolis for those times when he or she needs to meet with clients face-to-face.

We have the goods. The question is, how do we recruit these high-income, work-from-home professionals and build a critical mass of them in Wausau?

The first step is to know your target market. Singles and 20-somethings with an interest in an eclectic or Bohemian lifestyles will be hard to pull away from the bright lights of major metropolitan areas. But, move forward a few years. Find those people who are married and starting a family. These are people who will find downtown condo or apartment living more cramped and less suitable. Then there is the prospect of finding a good private school for the children, because big-city public schools are down-right scary. These are the people who are ready to make a change.

Secondly, build a website that targets these young, married professionals. Show how living in Wausau can address their changing lifestyle needs.

Thirdly, kick-it-off by marketing to grandparents in Central Wisconsin. Ask people whose children have gone-off to big cities and done well to email-out the link and invite those children to return and raise their new family back at home in Wausau.

Remember, this is a starting point. The target is people who probably grew-up here and still have family around town. Part of the appeal would be having an extended family in the area to help raise the children and be a part of their lives. Once there is a group of professionals like this, we can look to them to spread the word and recruit some of their colleagues.

The title of this column was inspired by Marissa Mayer, a fellow alumnus of Wausau West High School.  The New York Times recently called her a “brilliant computer scientist.”  She was one of the early employees of the start-up, GOOGLE, and went on to be CEO of Yahoo.  According to Wikipedia, Ms. Mayer is now 43, married, has three children under age 10, and has an estimated net worth of $540 million.  She currently resides in San Francisco.

Demographically, Ms. Mayer is emblematic of our target market. However, in this particular case, asking for a member of Silicon Valley royalty to return to Wausau is probably a tall order. But, if her next project needs data storage, we should be ready.

Meanwhile, think of the number of young people like Ms. Mayer who have left Wausau for college and a career in the past 30 years. It is a sizable cohort.

A strategy for bringing high-income earners back home might be just what is needed.  According to the Wisconsin Policy Forum, Wausau’s average income per tax return was $47,906 in 2015, 16.5% below the statewide average of $57,400. That statistical negative keeps us off the short list for retailers looking to retain or add locations. Bringing in households with incomes of $250,000 or more could help us close that gap.  Then, who knows, that dream of having a Red Lobster and a Trader Joe’s could become a  reality. There should be no question that bringing in more high-income earners would be a boon for the local economy.

In sum, wireless and smart devices are becoming ubiquitous, and there is no end in sight.  t is another mega trend that has implications. The need for data and program storage will only increase, and the number of highly-compensated professionals who can work from home is growing. We should be thinking about these trends, and we should find ways to incorporate them in our vision for Wausau’s future.

Author’s note:  It’s a small world. I served on Wausau West High School’s varsity debate team for all four years in high school, including a trip to state competition as a senior.  Marissa Mayer’s biography lists her as captain of Wausau West’s debate team when it won the state competition. Sadly, Wausau West no longer has a debate team.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of opinion editorials by Keene Winters on ideas for Wausau’s future. Winters served as an alderman in Wausau from 2012-2016. Reader responses and opinions are always welcome. Email submissions and letters for publication to editor@wausaupilotandreview.com.

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