Living in a Changing World Part One

“We have $47 million in inventory here today,” the plant manager told me. “We have twenty acres under one roof.”

Goods are stacked high up on racks. Workers move quickly on carts; gathering up loads delivered by over 2,500 semis a week and sending groceries on to stores all across the upper Midwest.

Last Friday I visited the Wal-Mart grocery distribution center – right in our Senate District. I learned Wal-Mart is the largest grocery retailer in the United States.

I also learned Wal-Mart is the largest employer in Wisconsin. The center in Tomah has more employees than any other Wal-Mart distribution center in the country. Almost 1,000 people work there.

The plant manager seemed to know the name of every one of his employees. He greeted each one of them as I toured the plant.

The Wal-Mart folks told me about their efforts to help their communities and the environment. Each Wal-Mart store has a budget of around $35,000 to donate for community service programs. The entire company has a focus on recycling and reducing waste and helps employees better understand how to conserve energy and live sustainably.

As the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart has more in sales - $378.8 billion in 2007– than most states have in total gross domestic product.  This is more than one and a half times the entire of economy of the state of Wisconsin. Wal-Mart’s economic activity would rank it as the twelfth largest state.

Wal-Mart is part of the story of how our entire world has changed.  And our world in rural Western Wisconsin is changing faster than ever before.

Every farmer who listens to the crop report realizes what happens in Brazil is important to the decision of when to sell beans. We live in an interdependent world, more than ever before in our history.

Whether it is changes in agriculture as farms grow larger and hire more immigrant labor or changes in manufacturing as some companies leave and other companies dramatically transform to survive.  Workers feel the change as real wages stagnate or fall and jobs move south; to South Carolina, or Mexico; and then to China.

Now I hear jobs are leaving China and moving to Vietnam. Wage rates are lower in Vietnam. 

I live in a community that used to have five gas stations, a hardware and a grocery store, two car dealers, a co-op and of course, four churches and maybe ten taverns. We still have the churches and taverns. But the rest, except for Kwik Trip, are gone.

In Alma, folks like to think they don’t need the rest of the world. It doesn’t really matter what happens in the rest of the world, we’ll do just fine, thank you.

In part, it is true. Alma has strong community organizations. Most of the store fronts on Main Street are open for business. And everyone donates more than their share of time volunteering to keep the community thriving.

But our population is not growing. Our school leads the state in declining enrollment. And not having a hardware is makes it hard on farmers who need just one bolt to fix that chopper.

As much as we don’t want to admit it, what happens in India, in China and in Tomah, does have an effect on Alma.

 What can we do? How do we adapt? In the next few weeks I will be exploring how Western Wisconsin is affected by our changing economy and what we can do to thrive as the world changes around us.

Got a story about changing times in your neighborhood? Got an idea on what might work to grow Western Wisconsin? Let me know! Write Senator Kathleen Vinehout at the State Capitol P.O. Box 7882 Madison, Wisconsin 53707-7882 or 877-763-6636 (toll free). I write a new column every week. If you missed a week, call or email me at sen.vinehout@legis.wi.gov . I’ll get you the latest!