Northland College is undoubtedly situated in the best place on Earth for student learning. Located in the midst of Lake Superior, the Apostle Islands, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, three tribal communities, a vibrant farming community, Northland researchers and students have access an unparalleled living laboratory.

The College continues to take advantage of the location as it develops its focus on place-based learning. First, in 2010, developing one of the first sustainable community development undergraduate programs in the country then, in 2015, creating the Center for Rural Communities with a polling laboratory to provide science and guidance to rural cities, agencies, and government.

Merging its location with social science, environmental education, and civic engagement, the College is teaching students how to contribute their minds and hearts to issues that will continue long after they are gone. Today it is roughly one of three undergraduate programs in the country, and has become one of the most popular programs on campus.

“Small towns are fertile ground for experimentation,” said Brian Tochterman, urban historian and assistant professor of sustainable community development. “That’s why Northland College is in a great location to study.”

For example, Tochterman’s students created a plan for improving community participation in the City of Ashland Comprehensive Plan and presented their plan to the city council and planning commission.

Northland College has already sent students into the world to work in city planning, nonprofit advocacy, and in green building design.

Center for Rural Communities

In rural communities such as Ashland, policy-makers and concerned citizens often find it difficult to locate relevant, accurate, and up-to-date data.

From large scale proposals like an iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills or a potential Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) in Bayfield County, to smaller scale planning like main street revitalization, affordable housing, and waterfront rehabilitation, many find themselves wishing they had better data to both understand local concerns and needs, and to identify unique opportunities for community driven development.

To remedy this data void, the sustainable community development faculty established the CRC provides research and consultation services, and support data-driven development and programming in the region.

“Other than county level data collected by federal and state entities, we really are lacking specific community level data to make informed community and economic development decisions,” said Brandon Hofstedt, associate professor of sustainable community development and faculty director for the CRC.

“The CRC helps fill this void and operate as a knowledge warehouse for the region,” he said.

He hopes the center will provide support for faculty research, real-world experiences for students, and build collaborative relationships between the College and surrounding communities.


The CRC is working on a number of projects and collaborations with the College’s Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation as well as community-based organizations and local government agencies.

For example, researchers are working with the Burke Center on five separate surveys for lakes and lake chains throughout northern Wisconsin including Lake Owen, Lake Nebagamon, Namakagon Chain of Lakes, Cisco Chain of Lakes, and the Penokee area lakes.

Data from these surveys will be used to help implement successful management plans according to each lake’s relationship between the desired use of the lake and the physical, chemical, biological, and social processes that shape the lake’s ecosystem.

The Center partnered with the Northwest Wisconsin Workforce Investment Board, the Concentrated Employment Program, the Chequamegon Food Co-op, and UW-Extension to conduct a local food survey. The purpose: to identify opportunities for workforce and economic development anchored in our burgeoning local food economy.

Student researchers interview local stakeholders, develop survey questions, prepare mailings, analyze data, craft written reports, and help plan CRC events.

Regional Database

The Center completed the Ashland Assets and Amenities report, which compares Ashland to other north woods communities that are similar in size, to identify opportunities for expanding existing assets and expanding amenities.

“Building on this report, we worked with the City of Ashland on a forum to disseminate findings and promote discussion around potential community-led economic development strategies for the city,” said Ana Tochterman, CRC director of research programs. “We hope to use these data to develop a public database of assets and amenities for communities in the region.”

Tochterman said an objective of the center is to “support development that aligns environmental and economic goals, and development that is more inclusive, meets diverse needs, and creates resilient communities.”

Robin Kemkes, an assistant professor of economics and the Chapple Chair of Regional Economic Development, focuses on the connections between a healthy environment and sustainable economic development.

Kemkes is currently collaborating with a student to calculate the economic value of ecosystems in Ashland and Bayfield counties. Going forward, she will be developing programs to support locally-owned small businesses in the region.

“This work has the potential to build on our region’s strengths and create vibrant communities,” Kemkes said. “I’m excited to be part of something where we have the chance to collaborate to improve the quality of life here for residents and to attract newcomers to the area.”

Based on a project called, Social Capital in the Chequamegon Bay, funded by the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation, CRC also completed the Roots in the Chequamegon Bay report, the first in a series of reports exploring the relationships between social capital and attachment to place.

According to Hofstedt, this work aims to, “inform investment in social infrastructure that is often overlooked, but has the potential to attract and keep people in the region.”

Public Opinion Polls

In December 2015, the CRC completed its first “timely and relevant” public opinion poll to gauge the feelings of Ashland and Bayfield county residents about a proposed CAFO in Bayfield County. It has since released the results of polls gauging regional attitudes about drinking water and to local foods.

Both Tochterman and Hofstedt are confident that the CRC will be an asset to students, faculty, and the community for generations to come.

“We’re confident this center will help bridge the theory-practice divide in rural communities,” Hofstedt said. “We’re applying knowledge to real life issues and problems—and bridging the disciplinary divide between natural and social sciences by finding ways that social science methods and theory can help inform natural science questions.”

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