Friday, November 8, 2013

South Wood County on National Stage

A week ago, the world learned about the people of south Wood County, Wisconsin. They learned of Kristi Anderson, who deferred graduate school to return to her hometown and help transform our riverfront. They discovered Kirk Willard, and how his leadership has contributed significantly to the success of local workforce efforts. And they met Gus Mancuso, the retired principal who’s now a passionate advocate for his community.

Our community’s willingness to experiment and to understand that each of us plays a vital role in shaping a new future by “stepping up, choosing hope, embracing change and modeling new behavior” was given national recognition during The Rockefeller Foundation’s “Celebration of Philanthropy” event in Washington, D.C. on October 30. As CEO of Incourage, I was humbled to be able to represent the work of people like Kristi, Kirk, and Gus to some of the nation’s top leaders in philanthropy and government, like retired Chief Justice of the United States Sandra Day O'Connor and philanthropist/singer Sir Elton John.

Standing just a few blocks from the White House in the American Red Cross building’s “Hall of Service,” I told the hundreds of attendees about our community’s “big bet.” Our big bet was, and continues to be, on the people who live in south Wood County.  How instead of trying to use dated, ineffective strategies that seek to attract the same old, unreliable jobs to our area, people are working courageously and persistently to build sustainable change in the community’s culture – transforming it from a paternal reliance on paper manufacturers, to one that embraces creativity, inclusion and the entrepreneurial spirit of risk and reward. It was a message that resonated with the attendees.   They understood that this is not easy work.  It is not a Band-Aid approach or a short-term fix.  It is long-term work that requires patience and persistence and is the kind of work that many communities should be undertaking.

In the decade I've had the privilege to lead this organization; I've always carried with me a deep sense of responsibility to our community’s residents and our donors. This is especially true when I am asked to speak on their behalf or accept recognition for our work.  Our work is their work.  Our recognition is their recognition. 

It’s also clear that our community is further along than other communities that face economic hardship and challenges. I've had the opportunity to see many other communities, development approaches and foundations.  I see how our community compares on the metrics that really count: people and assets.  We excel on both measures. 

Thank you to the Rockefeller Foundation for their 100 years of philanthropic leadership,  confidence in us, their invitation and for showing the world that our residents of south Wood County are doing something truly unique – not just surviving economic crisis but adapting in the midst of change and coming together to create a new future.

To view my presentation and the other presenters visit

Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Residents Take Control of Building's Future

Authentic leadership will risk failure 
by making the space for others to act.
                                                            ~Parker Palmer

For ten years, Incourage has made resident engagement our top priority. In newspaper columns, social media and even this blog, I’ve trumpeted the importance of creating a “participatory culture” in the Wisconsin Rapids area. I imagine changing the culture to one where all residents work together in service of their own goals and free from corporate or other outside influences to create the kind of hometown they desire.

On October 8, I saw this decade of effort realized as residents of all ages gathered at the Centralia Center for the first of four meetings to determine the future of the Tribune Building. For two hours, participants shared fantastic ideas about how to turn a plot of beautiful, riverfront real estate into a space the whole community can enjoy.

With the help of students from the University of Wisconsin Madison, Eau Claire and La Crosse (who joined us via a Google Hangout), a future for the building began to take shape. Some of my favorite ideas included a “makers’ space” a public place people can come together to create and an indoor farmers’ market. Many of the participants felt it was important to use the building in a way that took advantage of its access to the Wisconsin River. Ideas included a brew house and a rooftop restaurant, among others. Despite what some residents thought, Incourage is not moving into the Tribune Building. We also have no preconceived ideas about what the building will be.

As they left, many participants thanked us for the opportunity to be involved with the project. But really, we can’t thank them enough for their ideas and intent on shaping a new future for their community.

The Tribune Building could be a public meeting space. Or a lively restaurant with great views of the river. Or free source for high-speed internet access. But while I don’t know what it will ultimately be, I do know what it will be without you: nothing.

Over the next several weeks, we will build upon the ideas of our first meeting. We need to hear what you want our community to be. What are we lacking? What could we be doing better? This isn’t just an empty building; it’s a first step toward creating a better community for ourselves. Join us on November 12, December 10 and January 14 at the Centralia Center from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. to share your ideas.

Learn more >>

Thanks for reading.


Monday, August 5, 2013

Celebrate south Wood County at Incourage’s Community Picnic

We’ve all heard the phrase, “That’s a good problem to have.” Last year, when Incourage hosted our 1st Annual Community Picnic, we planned for 500 people. More than 1,000 showed up.
That was a great problem to have, and it showed us that residents were hungry for more than free food. The picnic provided an opportunity for people to come together to celebrate living in south Wood County. 

This year, our 2nd Annual Community Picnic is Wednesday, August 7, 4:30-8 p.m. at Lake Wazeecha’s Red Sands Beach. We learned a lot from our first picnic. We’ll have more food lines and we’re utilizing the new shelterhouse. We were also overwhelmed by residents’ generous offers to help out this year, be it with supplies, labor or money. And that’s what a community picnic is all about. That’s what a community is all about.
We hope that you, your neighbors, and people that you don’t know are at the picnic. Our intent in hosting this picnic is to highlight what we have as a community – not only in natural resources – but also in local assets: food, talent, and the people who live here.
Enjoy a performance of local talent in the Aqua Skiers and Shermalot water ski teams and listen to music by the band, Kids from Korea. Adults and kids can enjoy inflatables, visit with clowns, and meet Rosco Rafter and Cranberry Guy.

Incourage is the community’s foundation. Since 1994, we’ve focused on addressing the changing needs of our community. To do that, we need you. We believe that when you get to know your neighbors through conversation, it changes the way we understand our community and helps us realize our full potential.
The picnic and festivities are free. Our only request is that people begin to make new connections and build relationships. Perhaps you’ll meet a neighbor who lives across the street who you haven’t met yet. Or you may meet someone completely new and outside your circle. Either way, it’s good for our community, because strong relationships and connected residents make a community a vibrant place to live.
Join us and enjoy local food, local people and local talent. Meet someone new and start a conversation. Most of all, have fun. 

See you there,

Thursday, July 18, 2013

People are talking

Last week, as thousands of copies of Vital Signs were delivered to the homes of Daily Tribune subscribers, I wrote a column asking that residents use the report to have conversations with their friends, neighbors and elected officials for our region’s future.

In the days since the report was released, I’m happy to report that the conversation has begun. Residents have shared that they appreciate the addition of new data to this year’s report, and feel excited about the opportunities Vital Signs presents.

What makes Vital Signs so important to our community?

Vital Signs is a snapshot of us — the people and institutions that make up the south Wood County area.

Inside is up-to-date information about south Wood County’s schools, businesses, economy, and the engagement of its residents. Vital Signs tells us where we’ve been and where we’re going.

At Incourage, we continue to invest in this research and report because we believe good data is needed to make good decisions and measure impact. As you flip through Vital Signs’ pages, take note of the places where we succeed. The latest edition shows that our area continues to be a beautiful and vibrant place to live. Our high school dropout rate is lower than state and national averages, while the percentage of our residents who’ve earned an associate degree is higher. Crime is low in our area, with society crimes falling 30 percent over the last six years, and OWIs falling by 32 percent. The people of south Wood County also care about one another. Volunteerism increased in 2012, with the United Way of Inner Wisconsin reporting 193,000 hours worked — the equivalent of 96 full-time jobs.

But while we celebrate our successes, let us also acknowledge the challenges (and opportunities) the data presents in areas such as the changing manufacturing employment base and our aging population.

Inside the report you will also find information about our many community partnerships, including: Workforce Central, which matches local worker skills with employer needs, and the Regional Economic Growth Initiative (REGI), a forward-thinking partnership that promotes collaboration to pursue common economic growth strategies. There is also the new Business-Education Partnership Committee designed to increase communication and improve understanding between students and business owners. It also works to coordinate investments for local job growth projects and industry.

These are just a few of the efforts underway in the community. I’m sure you are aware of more. The data in this report is not meant to sit on a shelf. It is meant to spur conversations, partnerships and action.  

Let’s keep the conversation going. Call, e-mail, Facebook, tweet or post your thoughts below. We look forward to hearing from you!

Thanks for reading.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Good News for the Daily Tribune Building

He believed firmly in the role of educated and activist citizens in a democratic government.
-  Obituary of William F. Huffman, former owner and publisher of the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune

These words embody the spirit and vision of Incourage’s recent purchase of the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune building. 

William F. Huffman helped develop Riverview Hospital, and he was the founding director of both the South Wood County Economic Development Corporation and the South Wood County YMCA. He also financed city parks, scholarships and awards which continue to benefit the residents of our community. For that, Mr. Huffman was awarded the Wisconsin Rapids Citizen of the Year award in 1965. During his acceptance speech, Mr. Huffman said, “If a fellow can get this just for doing his duty, what a wonderful world it would be if we all really tried.”

Incourage shares Mr. Huffman’s sentiments as we progress with the development of the building he once owned. 

Concordia, a unique community-centered planning and design firm based in New Orleans, will design and develop the process for the adaptive reuse of the Daily Tribune Building. We selected Concordia for their expertise in organizing resident-led projects. They’ve completed fantastic redevelopment work, like the Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn, Mich. and the Liberian Renaissance Education Complex, a K-12 school, in the West African nation of Liberia. Concordia also organized a resident-led plan to revitalize New Orleans’ Upper 9th Ward neighborhood, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. 

Most importantly, Concordia shares the values of Incourage and Mr. Huffman. They believe, like we do, that residents should have a voice in their community and the opportunity to shape its future. They share our view that local contractors using local resources should be the ones to do the work. And in each of their projects, Concordia strives to incorporate the local history and culture into the structure’s design. 

Their work, along with others like the Market Creek development in San Diego, are our inspiration as we continue the process of transforming the Daily Tribune building. 

You can find out more about Concordia at More information about the Market Creek development is available at

Your participation in this process is vital! Get involved by taking a tour of the Daily Tribune building during Cranberry Blossom Festival, June 20-23. Call 715-423-3863 or email to reserve your tour.

Thanks for reading,

Friday, April 19, 2013

Farewell to Heart-Home Hero

My friend Ruth Barker, a woman of great faith and unparalleled generosity, passed away last week. She was 84.

I last saw Ruth at Christmastime in Milwaukee, where she had moved to spend the last years of her life surrounded by her children and grandchildren. Although her cancer had returned, Ruth’s spirit remained as strong as the day we first met.

And, like always, Wisconsin Rapids was on her mind.

Ruth & Hartley Barker
Ruth was one of this community’s greatest champions. She called Wisconsin Rapids her “heart home” because no matter how far she strayed, the city and its residents were never far from that most vital organ. Ruth loved this town and she spent her life showing it.

As a member of the storied Mead Family, Ruth was able to contribute vast sums of her fortune back to the community.

She was the granddaughter of George Mead I, one of the founders of Consolidated Papers, Inc., and she served on the company’s Board of Directors for eight years until its sale to Stora Enso in 2000.

After the sale, Ruth was pained to learn about the job losses plaguing her hometown. She felt like it was beyond her control, but also felt a deep desire to help in some way. In 2001, Ruth and her husband, Hartley, established the $4.8 million Ruth and Hartley Barker Advised Fund here at Incourage.

Three years later, the couple partnered with Ruth’s cousin, Gilbert Mead, and his wife, Jaylee, to establish the Barker Mead Fund. Their initial gift provided matching for $1 million funding community projects at 30 local organizations, including the Boys & Girls Club of the Wisconsin Rapids Area, Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools Endowment Fund, Arts Council of South Wood County and more.
It’s not a stretch to say that there isn’t a single nonprofit organization in our community that wasn’t helped by Ruth’s generosity.

Take a drive around south Wood County and it won’t be long before you pass a structure Ruth helped fund, or a person she helped succeed. Because of her long-term commitment to The Family Center, local victims of spousal abuse are given shelter and aid in a new facility on 25th Street North. The University of Wisconsin Cancer Center Riverview stands as a tribute to Ruth’s largesse and her commitment to the health and wellbeing of the city’s residents. And behind Grove Elementary School there’s a handicapped-accessible playground Ruth helped build. 

Even here, in the offices of Incourage, her influence is everywhere. Our building would not exist today were it not for Ruth. Our mission -- which she so accurately and bravely described as “social justice” -- would not be as strong.

But Ruth was more than her money. She was a quiet philanthropist. Someone who believed in goodness for goodness-sake. She was quick to smile, but firm in her convictions.

Above all, Ruth was my friend.
She will be missed.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

‘Sharing’ Ideas

Earlier this month, my staff participated in a conference call by Community Matters, a national organization that hosts conference calls and other training exercises for workers in the field of community development. The call, entitled “The Sharing Economy,” presented some interesting ideas about how to foster communication and cooperation in a local economy. The topics in the call seemed to add emphasis to a recent blog post I read.

In an Orton Family Blog piece entitled “Relationships: The Key to the New Economy,” Ariana McBride writes about how relationships build a stronger economy.

“The common thread running through much of this work is the power of relationships — the relationships we have with each other and to the communities in which we live and work,” writes McBride.

She highlights some innovative efforts by local communities to harvest their relationships for the good of everyone. Check out her blog post here:

Let me know what you think or how this might apply to our community.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Joining hands, not holding them.

We learned something very important about ourselves recently.

Last fall, we sent out 7,000 postcards to the community, asking them to join us for a discussion about how to improve the local economy. We put ads in The Daily Tribune, the VOICE of Wisconsin Rapids and on local public access TV channels. Essentially, we issued a mass call for the community to join our conversation. But the day of the event, only sixteen people showed up.

This confirmed what we’ve been observing and feeling for a while. How we approach communication in the community needs to change and become more intentional.

At Incourage we strongly believe in the principle of community engagement. It’s what we do, after all. But the response to our conversation about the economy showed us that instead of ringing the bell and expecting people to gather, we must bring people together in other ways.

To do this, we must build upon our strengths, and nothing makes us stronger than establishing relationships and making connections within our community. Over the last several weeks, we’ve been engaging in one-on-one conversations with south Wood County residents. One of the reasons we’re doing this is so that we can act as a bridge between people of like interests. For instance, we can connect “Mike” who wants to start a kayak rental business on the river, with “Jane” who is interested in the health of our waterways. In this way, Incourage can join hands in the community, not hold them.

Our next step is to develop an inventory of the good work already underway in our area, and make it available to residents. The update will be a regular release, and act as a snapshot of the moment.

By understanding our community’s assets, gathering information about what’s happening here, and joining residents with like interests, Incourage is working to fulfill its commitment to the long-term growth and vitality of our community. We want to help turn everyday people into everyone’s leaders.

To see great examples of how other communities are growing through relationships and networks, check out

I appreciate your comments, thoughts and support.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Growing the Economy in Central Wisconsin

The road to helping a community shape a new economy is long-term work and it isn’t without its detours. 

NewPage’s recent announcement that it would cut 300 jobs felt like a detour when I read the large red headline in the Feb. 20 Daily Tribune.  As I looked at the headline, I immediately wondered – how many local people will be impacted?  How will the community respond?

This announcement – as jarring as it is for those impacted – should not be a big surprise, given that the company was owned by a venture capital firm and just exited bankruptcy.  The owners’ primary interest is in the bottom line profitability of the company – doing whatever it takes to return to profitability. I understand this is the business they are in and they have a responsibility to their primary stakeholders.

Our primary stakeholders, however, are the people who live in this community. People who have been working hard to reinvent themselves and their community. People who strive to create and maintain an attitude of optimism and collaboration. People who are investing their time, talent and treasure in the place that they call home.

When large corporations change ownership several times in a decade, the community bears the brunt of downsizing and disinvestment.  Early downsizing and reduction of assets was absolutely necessary given the globalization of the paper industry – and we are likely at a point in time that most residents would agree.   I choose to look at subsequent changes from a community benefit lens, and when I do, I begin to wonder about corporate social responsibility and how that has played out in south Wood County over the last decade.  This is a question that deserves serious thought and analysis.

Incourage’s overarching purpose is the long term well-being of this community. We, and partners including government, education and business, are working to revamp and revitalize the economy of central Wisconsin. Efforts, such as Workforce Central and the Regional Economic Growth Initiative, show businesses’ active commitment and investment in our future.

We know that by building on our strengths in industries like paper, food, chemicals, cheese and cranberries, we can begin to diversify our local economy and reduce our dependence on the well-being of the paper industry.

We recently released an educational paper that provides some structure for a path forward. Growing the Economy in Central Wisconsin gives us a “sector-based” approach to growth. Incourage commissioned Angela Duran, an expert in economic development and president of Duran and Associates of Little Rock, Ark., to give us an overview of how cities and counties across the country are rebuilding and rebranding their economies. Duran said we should nurture our strengths, through infrastructure investments, workforce training and community investments in research and development, helping multiple companies and industries.

You’ll discover that sector-based work is already underway in south Wood County. This is a significant change from the way things were done in the past. Rather than putting all of our resources into recruiting a single company through tax incentives or aligning worker training strategies with a single industry, we have been investing in sectors – cranberries for example – and improving them for all businesses involved. Investments like these are “more likely to remain, even if an individual company moves or closes,” Duran writes.

A sector-based strategy is the right path for us. Because when future detours come, our investments will ensure that they will only be a bump in the road. 

Growing the Economy in Central Wisconsin is the third in a series of educational papers released by Incourage. Other papers include Making Workforce Work for Central Wisconsin and Bridging the Digital Divide to Improve Life in Central Wisconsin. 

Please take the time to read these briefs.  An informed and engaged citizenry is the most valuable currency a community has.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.


Thursday, February 28, 2013


Welcome to my blog!

couldn't be more excited to explore this digital platform as a way to share the exciting work of Incourage Community Foundation. I’ve been CEO of Incourage since 1996, and in that time we’ve made improving the life in south Wood County our mission. Whether by turning everyday residents into tomorrow’s leaders, working to expand access to information digitally and in print, or by partnering with local schools and businesses to retrain our workforce, Incourage is working to move this community forward. 

I hope this blog will be a place to share some of our great stories; I believe there are many more to come. It will also be a place to hear from you. At Incourage, we believe that solutions to our region's most pressing issues must come from its residents. We believe that by doing the hard work together, we can create a growing and vibrant community. That’s why I encourage my readers to comment, email, or call to share their ideas about our work and any of the topics I post.

Now, in other news . . .  

In December, Incourage purchased the former Daily Tribune building from the newspaper’s parent company, Gannett. Situated along the riverfront in downtown Wisconsin Rapids, we viewed the building as a valuable piece of our history with enormous potential for our community’s future. We hope the building will be the catalyst for a “community-centered” process of revitalization - one with everyday residents taking ownership of their community.

A lot is going on with the building. Here is what you need to know: 

  • In the coming months, Incourage will be holding tours of the Tribune building. The tours will be open to the public and Helen Jungwirth (pictured above), a retired publisher of the Daily Tribune and current chair of the Incourage board, will act as a guide. For several years, Helen worked in the building and she has extensive knowledge of the Tribune’s history. We believe her participation will create a wonderful opportunity for residents to learn about the past, while also considering how to shape our future. 
  • This spring, we expect to complete a draft of how to gather, process, and integrate community-generated ideas about the property into a plan of action. Right now, we are researching how other cities have implemented similar projects. We are particularly excited about the Market Creek development in San Diego. It’s a fantastic example of a grassroots project to revitalize a blighted shopping area. You can read more about the Market Creek development here:
  • While the building is vacant, the Wisconsin Rapids Police Department will be using the space to train its special response team and K-9 unit, as well as to teach patrol officers how to clear a building. 
  • To keep the building humming until renovations can begin, we have installed a temporary heating unit. 
  • Incourage is sorting through about 100 rolls of blueprints from the Tribune so they can be categorized and possibly hung inside the building once it is restored. 
There is always lots happening at Incourage. I look forward to sharing it with you in the weeks and months to come. Thanks for reading.