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New Survey Results Show Fragile Economic Recovery Taking Shape In Wisconsin

Results Show A Reluctance To Travel, Raising Questions For Wisconsin's Tourism Industry

Worker in manufacturing plant
Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

Wisconsin businesses reported income gains in July, marking the first time since April the state’s businesses did not report losing income, according to new survey results the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh released Tuesday.

Businesses surveyed statewide said they saw a collective $11 million gain in income compared to July 2019. That’s an improvement from the losses they have seen throughout the pandemic, including $85 million in lost income reported in April when the survey was first conducted. Losses were reported in the months of May and June as well.

But according to Jeffrey Sasche, interim director UW-Oshkosh’s Center for Customized Research and Services, which conducts the survey, the results show a fragile recovery that still hasn’t started for many businesses.

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“We started to see the early indications of economic recovery in June,” Sachse said in a statement. “The July survey results show both the scale and fragility of that recovery. While businesses are reporting growth, more than half of the businesses responding to the survey reported continued losses or no change.”

Brittany Beyer, executive director of Grow North, an economic development agency in northern Wisconsin that partnered with UW-Oshkosh on the survey, said northern Wisconsin is not seeing an economic recovery yet.

“A long-time business owner up here said something that makes a lot of sense: our highs are higher and are lows are lower,” Beyer said. She said the region has a business infrastructure that has remained sound throughout the pandemic, but added that the service sector and retail industry have taken the biggest hits.

The survey asked 593 business owners about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their business. It’s done in partnership with UW-Oshkosh’s Center for Customized Research and Services, the state’s nine regional development organizations and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

Businesses also reported hiring new employees for the first time since May, with nearly 250 workers hired during July. In May, businesses reported firing or laying off nearly 10,000 workers.

When asked about business and personal travel, 65 percent of businesses said they planned to eliminate all non-essential travel for the rest of 2020, and more than one-third have already decided to do the same in 2021.

Madison Region Economic Partnership President Paul Jadin said those numbers are concerning for the state’s airports, in particular Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport and the Dane County Regional Airport in Madison. Jadin noted that airports are a key tool for economic development, as many firms look for places to locate their business that are close to an airport for business travel.

“Airports are among the biggest issues when it comes to attracting business, and certainly very important when it comes to retaining business,” Jadin said. Madison Region Economic Partnership partnered with UW-Oshkosh on the survey.

Beyer said despite the lack of business travel, she sees tourism benefiting from in-state travel and people looking to travel shorter distances. She noted that a number of second homeowners decided to stay in their properties in northern Wisconsin early on in the pandemic, which has translated to good sales for grocery stores in the region.

Both Beyer and Jadin said they were encouraged to see that a majority of businesses said in July they could survive for more than 10 months. In April, a majority of businesses expected they would only be able to stay afloat for one to three months.

In the July results, firms statewide also reported inventory gains of more than $3 million, and gains in wages and productivity of over $4 million.

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