|This member profile is the third in a series highlighting members of NACo’s Economic Mobility Leadership Network, a cohort of county leaders working to improve economic outcomes for their residents and sharing strategies and solutions in a peer learning setting. This interview has been edited for brevity.|
Supervisor Larry Nelson was a middle school Language Arts teacher for 30 years at Butler Middle School until he was elected Waukesha Mayor in 2006. As Mayor, he helped to get the Great Lakes Compact passed by the Wisconsin Legislature in 2008. The Waukesha Common Council was the first community in the U.S. to submit a Great Lakes Water Application in 2010 and the first to be approved by all eight Great Lakes Governors in 2016.
Larry was also a Waukesha Alderman for 6 years and in 2009, was elected by his peers as President of the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities. He was elected as a Waukesha County Supervisor in 2012 and re-elected to a fifth term in 2020.
Larry serves as a Vice Chair of the NACo Community, Economic & Workforce Development Steering Committee and the NACo Arts & Culture Commission. He is Co-Chair of the Waukesha County Heroin Task Force, Chair of the HHS Board and the Joint Conference Committee that oversees our Mental Health Center and serves on the Wisconsin Counties Association HHS Steering Committee, Finance, Judiciary, CDBG, and the Bridges Library System Board.
Larry also volunteers on the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books Program Committee, Waukesha Reads Steering Committee and the Friends of the Waukesha Public Library Board, the Plowshare Fair Trade Marketplace Board, Friends of the Women’s Center, and as Vice President of the Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin Board whose mission is to end poverty.
Q: Why did you decide to join NACo’s Economic Mobility Leadership Network?
A: I was excited to join the EMLN because it dovetails with my active participation in the NACo Community, Economic & Workforce Development Steering Committee, which advocates for CDBG funding, and the NACo Arts & Culture Commission, which promotes how the arts help economic development. I was just reappointed to be a vice chair for both groups.
Q: What does economic mobility mean to you?
A: Economic mobility to me means being able to achieve the American dream of choosing a great place to live, including a home or apartment that meets your needs, a good job where you enjoy going to work and fun activities to balance your family and work time.
I feel fortunate to live in a beautiful 1890 Victorian home across the street from a park, walking distance to historic downtown Waukesha and Riverwalk where art crawls happen quarterly, and our award winning public library is next to a park that hosts outdoor concerts and movies. I’ve tried to use my 10 years in city government and almost 10 years in county government to help others achieve this kind of economic mobility.
Q: What are some efforts your county is making to address issues of economic mobility?
A: I believe our Waukesha County Community Development Block Grant board that I’ve chaired and serve on has played a key role in addressing economic mobility. We recently finalized our 2022 CDBG funding which will help about 25 nonprofits like: Habitat for Humanity, [which] builds affordable housing; Salvation Army and Hebron House, which run shelters and provide case management for people experiencing homelessness; the Hope Center, which helps with clothing, transportation and a day center; and the Women's Center, which runs a shelter for victims of domestic violence, as well as an employment program and children’s sexual abuse counseling.
Waukesha County has a history of collaboration, like partnering with the Housing Action Coalition and the city of Waukesha, which we provided CDBG funding to convert an old city fire station to a permanent overflow homeless shelter to help our most vulnerable people.
We help fund the Waukesha County Center for Growth, an economic development organization which partners with the county, local municipalities, and the Waukesha County Business Alliance, providing a win-win for our workforce efforts.
Our Workforce Development Board has invested funds for employment and training services, leading to self-sustaining wages and high-growth careers. This board also works with businesses to create on-the-job training to help job seekers with limited experience to improve their employment.
We also have great K-12 schools and world class technical education at Waukesha County Technical College, as well as excellent higher education at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee at Waukesha and Carroll University that all have business education partnerships that help graduates meet the skills needed at Waukesha County companies.
I'm biased as a retired English teacher, but I believe education, especially improved literacy and lifelong learning, are keys to achieving economic mobility.
Q: What unique economic mobility challenges does your county face?
A: Our unique challenges include the need for affordable workforce housing and the lack of transportation options to help workers reach jobs in some parts of the county. That's why, when I was Waukesha Mayor, I worked with the Waukesha and Milwaukee County Executives to eliminate the 25 cent bus transfer fee between counties that save bus riders 50 cents a day as they traveled for jobs or school.
It's also why the two counties have been working on a rapid bus system to improve transportation between neighboring counties to make it easier and faster for people to get to their jobs and school. Even though Waukesha County has a high median income, we also have increasing numbers of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. That is why I voluntarily represent our county on the Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin Board of Directors, whose mission is to end poverty in Waukesha, Jefferson and Dane counties.
Q: What lessons have you learned about economic mobility, since joining the EMLN?
A: I feel like I’ve earned a Master's degree in economic mobility through the three pre-pandemic EMLN conferences and our monthly virtual meetings during the pandemic.
The involvement of the speakers and the Aspen Institute have helped me better understand issues and best practices related to economic mobility. It's helped put my educational and political career in context, along with my involvement in many nonprofits that all provide a synergy to improve economic mobility.
Another example of collaboration is I serve on the Bridges Library System Board of Trustees which oversees all the public libraries in Waukesha and Jefferson counties. They provide free access to computers and free online classes, which can help people do resumes, find jobs, housing and not to mention getting smarter. That's why I started the Waukesha Reads Program when I was mayor, which was inspired, and sometimes funded, by the National Endowment of the Arts Big Read Program.
We will give out over 1000 free books this October with programming, including a virtual event with Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, this year’s selection. My experience as a teacher is that reading outside of school is the best indicator of success in life.
Q: What are your economic mobility goals for the future of your county?
A: We've already included economic mobility as part of our future goals for our five year CDBG plan. I've already highlighted the importance of CDBG in a previous question, but I need to say I believe it's one of the most successful and efficient federal and county collaborations that make our county a better community.
We recently had a virtual community summit with 63 people to revitalize our Waukesha County Heroin Task Force to deal with the opioid crisis that's been exacerbated by the pandemic. We're going to create some action teams on harm reduction, prevention, treatment and recovery. I hope my continued leadership will help it move forward.
We’re using CARES Act funding for rent assistance and eviction prevention—helping both renters and landlords. We're also working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to help people find permanent housing. I'm excited that our county’s Criminal Justice Collaborative Council just voted to be part of NACo’s Stepping Up Initiative which could also help those with mental health issues.
Other CARES funds are helping food banks, medical care and case management. Continuing to oversee those funds as well as overseeing our $78 million in American Rescue Plan funds will be my main goals in the future as I continue to serve on our Finance Committee, chair our Health and Human Services Advisory Board and remain active in EMLN.
Q: We must now think about long term economic mobility alongside recovery from the impacts of COVID-19. How are you working toward equitable recovery in Waukesha County?
A: Equitable recovery will be crucial as we spend the CARES and American Rescue Plan funds discussed in the last question. We need to use the additional employment and training funds to serve dislocated workers impacted by the pandemic. This should help unemployed job seekers reenter the workforce as quickly as possible and help them return to the path of economic mobility and achieve the American dream.
It's been an honor and privilege to serve on the EMLN. I look forward to continuing learning from my colleagues and highlighting why Waukesha County’s motto is ‘Leading the Way’. Thanks for this opportunity.