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In rural areas, there is often a heated debate over economic development that essentially boils down to a choice between industrial jobs and tourism jobs. Both come with advantages and disadvantages, but to pit these two sectors against each other in an either-or discussion is a false dichotomy. My hometown provides a good example of how industry and tourism can coexist.
I grew up on a dairy farm in Waupaca, Wisconsin. For those industry buffs out there, Waupaca is home to the Waupaca Foundry, the largest producer of gray, ductile, austempered ductile, and compacted granite iron in the world, melting more than 9,500 tons a day. For those of you planning your next vacation, Waupaca has the Chain O’Lakes, a beautiful series of interconnected lakes that is one of the state’s top tourism destinations.
The debate over industry versus tourism is heated in Waupaca, an economic profile of which can be described as the three Fs: farming, foundry, and FIBs (an unflattering term for tourists from Illinois). It’s a debate common to small towns, with the alternatives seen as being a focus on increasing tourism or promoting development of industrial, blue-collar jobs. The truth is, our town needs both.
I lived a stone’s throw from the Waupaca Foundry (don’t ask me how I know that), which employs more people than any other employer in Waupaca County. Some days the air smelled bad, so bad I didn’t want to be outside, especially when there was a wagon full of hay that needed to be put up in the barn. Fewer people had more exposure to the unappealing externalities of the foundry than my family and I.
Although things did not always smell like roses at my house, Waupaca is a small town surrounded by smaller towns, and the wages paid by Waupaca Foundry are a big reason we have a little movie theater, two grocery stores, and three car dealerships, which the surrounding towns don’t have. The foundry also helped some of my friends pay for college.
Starting wages at the foundry are around $12 an hour, but with piece work and incentives, people can start at $15 to $18 an hour. Jobs paying more than $37,000 a year are hard to come by in our part of the state, but that is what workers at the foundry make with only a high school diploma.
On the other side of town we have the Chain O’Lakes. Many of my friends worked there, too. These first jobs provided valuable real-world experience, and my friends who served as hostesses, servers, dish washers, and cooks at local restaurants learned interpersonal skills, the art of conversation with strangers, how to be amazing short-order cooks, and other useful skills.
Tourism provides a boost for the small businesses on Main Street that see their margins dwindle in the winter as their main customers stay home for the cold months. But tourism jobs are usually minimum-wage jobs, and they leave with the tourists after Labor Day.
Thus both these sources of income are important to the local economy, and they can coexist peacefully. In too many cases, environmental activists who advocate for a tourism-based economy frame this discussion as an economic Sophie’s Choice, when they should instead look for environmentally responsible ways to promote both manufacturing and tourism.
Unfortunately, the false dichotomy that pits industry against tourism is not confined to the little town where I grew up; it rages in areas all over the country. This debate is especially destructive now, as more than 800,000 people dropped out of the labor force in April alone, partly because so many of them became frustrated and stopped looking for work entirely. Voters and lawmakers in small towns should be looking for all ways to create more good-paying, family-supporting jobs—as should those in bigger cities. If anyone asks you whether you are for industry or tourism, remember: The correct response is “both.”
Isaac Orr (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow for energy and environmental policy at The Heartland Institute.