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Last updated: June 21, 2002

Survey Center Finds Out What Wisconsinites Really Want
By Khrysten Darm
UW-RF News Bureau

Small town Wisconsin residents want to eat out more and have greater diversity in the cuisine offered in their communities. They don't mind driving farther to buy an appliance or furniture, but they want to easily purchase an odd nut or bolt from a local hardware store. They like convenient parking on Main Street. They have mixed reactions to building new schools. Some of them are very concerned about land use development.

Those are just some of the pearls that have been gleaned over the past decade through the surveying of over 100,000 Wisconsinites by the Survey Research Center at UW-River Falls. Housed in UW-RF's Regional Development Institute, the Survey Research Center conducts bargain basement-priced surveys for non-profit and non-government organizations, as well as for smaller units of government.

Larry Swain, a former UW-RF associate professor of agricultural economics, started the Survey Research Center in 1990 and expanded it in 1995. He launched the center so rural communities could get affordable, reliable information based on solid surveying methodologies. Its purpose was to serve as an aid to community development specialists and it has been growing ever since.

"Smaller communities donšt have the money to spend conducting surveys, but they need that information," Swain explained.

The center's survey services are not available to private businesses. The cost to government units and non-profits is held to just $7 per completed survey because most don't have many resources. That rate is only about a third of the cost that is usually charged by commercial survey takers who provide research services to private enterprise. In some cases, non-profit organizations can reduce the cost even more by doing their own curbside or phone surveys. In those cases, the Survey Research Center consults on the survey design and then inputs the data and analyzes it for just $2.50 a survey.

Generally, it takes the center several weeks to process data because it relies on student help to gather and input information so as to keep costs down. That lag time can prove to be a drawback when a community needs information in a hurry, said David Kabes, current director of the Survey Research Center.

"But because the price is so low, there has got to be some give and take."

Currently, the center is working on a survey for Waukesha County to learn how people feel about the 16 libraries in their county. Another is measuring the economic impact of tourism in 20 communities along the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Other examples of the center's past work includes asking people in townships how they feel about land use; gauging public support for school district referenda; or assessing downtown parking preferences for shoppers.

Last year, the center conducted 35 types of surveys for 31 different groups. The center usually conducts anywhere between 25 to 30 surveys a year.

There are three types of surveys that the center conducts: mail-out, telephone and face-to-face surveys. For mail-out and telephone surveys, the center uses phone books to keep the surveys anonymous. "There are no pre-printed lists so there is no way that person can go back to see what a particular individual said," Kabes said.

Kabes has a small group of students that help with collecting the information. "The students play a vital role in the operation, and without them, this would be virtually impossible," he said. "A lot of work goes into collecting surveys," Kabes said.

To complete 300 telephone surveys, about 1,500 to 2,000 calls are required. For mail-out surveys, they try to get a 40 to 50 percent return rate and the center will mail out anywhere from 400 to 800 surveys.

For more information, contact Kabes at 715/425-0701. -30-

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