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.