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Wisc. city tops nation in credit scores

Glen Moberg Nov 4, 2011

Wisc. city tops nation in credit scores

Glen Moberg Nov 4, 2011

Tess Vigeland: All right, from worst to first! For the best credit scores in the nation we head north from Texas to — drum roll, please — Wisconsin. Don’t dislocate your shoulders patting yourselves on the back. At the very top of the list is Wausau. a small city in the middle of the badger state with an average credit score of 789.

We asked Glen Moberg of Wisconsin Public Radio to figure out why.

Glen Moberg: The people of Wausau might be so credit-worthy because they’re tight-fisted. Like many communities in the upper Midwest, they’ve learned to save thanks to their shared history.

In the late 1800s, the region was ruled by lumber barons, who floated giant pine logs down the Wisconsin River. When the ancient forests were clear-cut, towns like Wausau suffered. But this city managed to build new companies — Wausau Insurance and Wausau Paper.

Developer Mark Craig says the foresight of those early leaders helped create a thriving downtown.

Mark Craig: We have a diverse economy, and great transportation routes and great leaders that have got us to a spot today where we can boast about a community that is continually growing in spite of some very tough economic times.

Despite the growth, Wausau still has a small-town feel. It’s late morning at the Mint Cafe, which has been serving food at its downtown location since 1888. At one of the tables, high school coach Derek Steinke treats seven members of his girls’ swim team to breakfast.

Derek Steinke: It’s a good family environment, it’s a good place to raise your family. We have a low crime rate. We take pride in our city. We’re honest people. We like to pay back what we borrow.

The pay-as-you-go attitude has led to high credit scores, according to Todd Nagel, the president of Wausau’s family-owned River Valley Bank.

Todd Nagel: We are seeing higher credit scores here in the Wausau area, and I just think that people are more conservative with their money. There’s not a lot of flashy things to do around here.

Nagel says when people here borrow money to buy a home, they usually already have the 20-percent downpayment. And housing prices are a bargain. You can get a decent starter home in a good neighborhood for less than $50,000.

Nagel: We just hired a new chief financial officer here at the bank. He moved here from Madison. He’s so excited because he can buy a place, a house on the lake, for the same price that he could buy his house in a neighborhood in Madison.

Lake Wausau and the Wisconsin River were once vital for the lumber industry. Now they’re centers for recreation and tourism.

But the region is not free from challenges. Wausau Insurance no longer exists and Wausau Paper may sell the mill where the company got its start. A native son who represented the area for 41 years in Congress, Dave Obey, says his city also struggled with racial integration.

Dave Obey: Just 30 years ago, it was the most lily white community in the country, virtually no racial minorities whatsoever. Then the Hmong came in. It caused a huge uproar for years.

When the Hmong arrived, they couldn’t write or speak English. Now, the southeast Asian refugees own stores, work in offices and factories and have helped make Wausau the country’s leading producer of ginseng. Obey says the Hmong’s old world attitudes about work and money fit right in.

Obey: Today, you have many many solid citizens in that community, and the community has learned to deal with the fact that it isn’t lily white anymore and the sky hasn’t fallen. You have a tremendous work ethic.

A diverse economy, affordable housing, hard work and penny pinching. These are the things the people of Wausau credit for those high credit scores.

In Wausau, Wisc., I’m Glen Moberg for Marketplace Money.

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