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Young professionals week draws millennials

By Portage County Business Council

When the average person drives through Wisconsin Rapids, Appleton or Wausau and sees empty storefronts, the impression is not good.

But through the eyes of Kristopher Gasch, Nick O’Brien or Adrienne Palm, these vacant spaces spell ripe opportunity – a chance to be part of creating something fresh.

“We’re all looking for a sense of vibrancy. That’s not always something that will smack you in the face,” said Gasch, a founder of the new young professionals group in Wisconsin Rapids. “The world is run by those who show up. You can’t just sit back and expect things to happen. In Wisconsin Rapids, we have the ability to create essentially anything.”

Wisconsin Rapids is one of 15 communities participating in Young Professionals Week April 23-30, which will involve over 100 events throughout the state aimed at getting a younger generation excited about where they live.

In addition to highlighting the more attractive parts of their communities, these groups are turning over the uglier sides of cities to expose opportunities for young professionals to get involved. O’Brien’s group in Wausau is holding an event in a vacant building to generate ideas for renewal; Palm’s group plans to discuss redevelopment of Wisconsin Avenue in Appleton.

“There’s so much opportunity there but it doesn’t seem like there’s anything going on,” Palm said of Wisconsin Avenue. “We want people to become engaged because that hands-on approach is what creates the glue to keep them in the community. Once you see you’re impactful, it makes it harder to leave.”

Young Professionals Week, which was started in Milwaukee a few years ago, expanded to eight communities last year and 15 this year in part because of backing from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. The state agency helped fund NEWaukee’s work to coordinate the expansion as part of an effort to attract and retain the next generation of the workforce.

As employees age and retire, Wisconsin is hemorrhaging educated young people who are needed to fill openings. One analysis found Wisconsin lost an average net 14,000 college graduates per year from 2008 to 2012, most of whom were under 30.

“They’re not choosing this place,” said Angela Damiani, president of NEWaukee, a for-profit agency working on talent retention. “YP Week is geared toward young professionals finding what they need to make that choice to stay.”