1 year after Richland: How a rural Wisconsin community reckons with losing their university

When the University of Wisconsin-Richland closed its doors last year, the impact reverberated far beyond the campus. For this small rural community, the loss of the university meant not just the end of an institution, but a blow to the area’s economy, identity, and future. One year later, residents are still grappling with the aftermath and working to rebuild.

Economic Fallout: The most immediate impact was economic. The university was one of the area’s largest employers, and the job losses rippled through the community. Local businesses that relied on student customers – from coffee shops to bookstores – struggled to stay afloat. While some have found ways to adapt, others were forced to close their doors.

A Shift in Demographics: The presence of a university typically attracts a diverse population of students, faculty, and staff. Without it, Richland has experienced a shift. Younger people and families are moving away, seeking opportunities elsewhere. This has led to a decline in school enrollment and a graying of the population.

A Loss of Community Hub: The university was more than just an educational institution – it was a community hub. It hosted cultural events, lectures, and performances that enriched the area’s cultural life. Without these offerings, residents feel a void. The campus itself, once bustling with activity, now sits largely empty, a constant reminder of what’s been lost.

Rebuilding and Renewal: Despite the challenges, the people of Richland are resilient and determined to rebuild. Community leaders are exploring ways to repurpose the former university campus, from vocational training centers to incubators for local startups. There’s talk of attracting new businesses and industries to replace the economic engine lost.

Focusing on Education: While the university is gone, a commitment to education remains strong. The local school district is working to enhance its own offerings, from dual-enrollment programs to career and technical education. The goal is to provide opportunities for young people to stay in the area and build successful futures.

Healing and Moving Forward: The loss of a university is a significant blow, but it’s also an opportunity for reinvention. The people of Richland are coming together to envision a new future for their community. It won’t be the same as before, but with determination and creativity, they can build something new and vibrant in its place.

The story of Richland serves as a reminder of the critical role higher education plays in rural communities. When a university closes, the effects are far-reaching. But even in the face of loss, there’s the potential for resilience, adaptation, and ultimately, renewal.

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