Friday, December 11, 2015

People: our most important asset

People make communities. At Incourage, we believe human capital is our greatest asset and that positive community change happens through individuals realizing their full potential, recognizing their interdependence with one another and engaging in honest, respectful dialogue about our shared future. Individuals who are willing to reflect, learn and grow, start important conversations, and build relationships are the real change agents.    

It is particularly heartening to see young adults who care about this place.  Young adults who are making positive change happen. 

Although I could give you many examples, today I will share just one that recently inspired me:

In his blog posted December 1, former resident Jonathon Engelien penned an authentic and heartfelt expression of his connection to Wisconsin Rapids. In his words, “You’re so much more than an aged paper mill town. You’re a place where real people develop lives and experiences … I want to care about you, I do care about you, and I want other people to feel the same way.” 

Not only did Jonathon grow up here, he is also one of seven artists selected to work on permanent art installations for the renovated Tribune Building through the ArtPlace America grant Incourage received in 2014. This initial blog post officially kicked off Jonathon’s artistic process to engage the community in how it views and identifies with the south Wood County area, in positive, neutral or negative ways.

His blog struck a chord with more than 2,800 readers, prompting an online response and dialogue. This kind of open, honest communication is helping us talk about our past and future; our individual and shared experiences; and our challenges and opportunities. People care. It is that deep compassion for one another and commitment to this place that brings forth positive community change. 

Celebrating our assets, understanding our journey and working together to realize a shared vision of the future are all elements of Jonathon’s story.  It is his story, though.  Each of us has a story and an experience. 

Take a few minutes to read Jonathon’s blog, read the comments and join the conversation. 


Monday, August 31, 2015

Tribune: Our Community Accelerator

This morning, residents have once again demonstrated support, pride, and a sense of ownership and appreciation for local assets, as evidenced by the strong turnout at today’s announcement by Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch of the $472,000 grant for the Tribune from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). This important grant and the partnerships it represents accelerates our efforts and will leverage key investments from other philanthropic, private, and public resources. On behalf of Incourage’s board, staff, volunteers – and the over 800 residents involved in the Tribune to date – I extend our appreciation to the City of Wisconsin Rapids, including Mayor Vruwink, Common Council members and staff, and the State of Wisconsin/WEDC for their support and partnership.

left to right: Jason Scott, WEDC; Naletta Burr, WEDC; Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor
Rebecca Kleefisch; Kelly Ryan, Incourage; and Mayor Zach Vruwink, City of Wisconsin Rapids

The turnout this morning represents the most recent and relevant example of the growing movement underway in our community, displaying the sense of community, pride, and appreciation for local assets that were also evident during our 4th annual community picnic. On August 5, more than 5,000 members of the community came together in front of the historic Tribune building to celebrate our region and its residents by participating in a community picnic. The picnic’s remarkable attendance by residents of all ages demonstrates our commitment to and recognition of what the Tribune represents: Our increasing sense of shared ownership, responsibility to each other and commitment to place. 

Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch
and Kelly Ryan, Incourage

As many of you know, over 800 residents have invested 5,500+ hours in planning the Tribune’s physical layout and functions, as well as championing and advocating for its LEED-certified “green” environmental design. The term we use to describe this unique enterprise is “community accelerator.”  

What does that mean?  

The Tribune will accelerate economic growth, impact, and value, promoting connections among individuals and institutions. It will provide economic value in the form of training for entrepreneurs and support services to capitalize on our local food and agricultural assets. Training offered through the Tribune will incorporate Incourage’s learning from six years of investing in workforce development, accelerating best practices and lessons learned with new and emerging entrepreneurs and small businesses in our area.  

The Tribune will accelerate our understanding of environmental sustainability and its connection to future economic prosperity. Nearly $4 million of renovation investment will support the Tribune’s status as the first LEED Gold Certified building in the community. It will serve as a demonstration and learning lab for current and future generations.

The Tribune will accelerate additional development in the immediate surrounding area and south Wood County region, as demonstrated by recent real estate transactions involving downtown commercial properties on both sides of the river. 

The Tribune will accelerate learning and connections among individuals and institutions. Residents are framing our community’s future, and not just inside the building’s walls. Incourage staff continue to facilitate ongoing meetings of over 200 people engaged in Tribune interest groups – with focus areas spanning the local food system to downtown development. Incourage itself is learning and documenting our experience with the Tribune – of particular note related to today’s WEDC announcement is how to leverage complex financing and investment strategies and partnerships previously not deployed in this area, such as New Markets Tax Credits. Understanding and executing innovative approaches to successful community development is vital to our collective future.  Incourage will share lessons learned with local institutions in order to accelerate best and emerging practices in community development throughout our region. 

Ultimately, the Tribune will accelerate creativity, new thinking, narrative and the ability to take risks and “fail forward” - essential attributes of a community that is open to change and new thinking in its approach to shaping a strong and inclusive local economy. We are building on a heritage of innovation, vision, commitment and perseverance in our community, and, together, we are accelerating positive community change.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Balance, transparency and equity: keys to sustainable development

I’ve been thinking about our community’s historical and current approach to economic development in light of recent attention to downtown Wisconsin Rapids.  So much has changed in the last 20 years - yet many of the challenges remain the same. 

In June 1996, our local newspaper printed an editorial entitled Common Vision is a Key to Progress Here, in which editors expanded on a resident’s earlier call for a community vision, common agenda and people working together. Editors commented on the need for collaboration and common vision for downtown development:

“Every community needs dreamers and thinkers – people of vision who can see what exists, offer suggestions for the future, and then chart a course for action. Sometimes, those people are governmental officials. Sometimes, they’re administrators or staff people who do planning as part of their jobs. But regular citizens can have the gift of this sort of ‘vision,’ too.”

In explaining the success of a community development initiative by SWC2000 to build athletic facilities, the editorial went on to share:

“…organizers realized that individually, it would be difficult to raise the money and get the work accomplished… But when they pooled their efforts, great things could happen.”

Further, “People knew the plan and were more likely to support it.”

The structure and underpinnings of our local economy have changed since the above referenced editorial was published 20 years ago – yet we are still today calling for common vision and collaboration in downtown Wisconsin Rapids. 

We are no longer the home to a Fortune 500 paper company, nor are we a ‘one industry or company town’. It’s past time to adapt our thinking and our approaches.  We have to learn from our history– experiment, take risks and try new things. Dust off the innovation that created and grew the industries that built this area – early pioneers were innovators and had to work together to make things happen.  Incourage is committed to experimenting, taking risks, trying new things and working together to realize our vision of a community that works well for all people. 

Today, the Tribune stands as an example of a new approach and demonstration that people do support known plans. Further, as the residents who’ve contributed to the process of determining the Tribune’s future continue to demonstrate – when people are involved in creating the plan, there is even greater support for its implementation and sustainability. 

And while the residents’ design for the Tribune is wholly unique, what is also noteworthy is its alignment with the City’s three Downtown Development plans (1996, 2007, and 2009).

The 2007 Downtown Revitalization Plan indicates the need for a “showcase” redevelopment project, and highlights the Tribune and surrounding property (Market Square) as a priority development area. The building is further described as a good candidate for reuse as a community-oriented space. The plan also confirms a need for downtown open space for festivals, activities and recreation, as well as programming that provides opportunities for day trip activities for families.

The 2009 Downtown Waterfront Plan builds on the articulated priorities of the 2007 Plan, focusing on enhancements to pedestrian connectivity, walkability, and visual appeal of the downtown area. It also reaffirms the opportunity for the Tribune property to be redeveloped as a central gathering space for the City.

I guess it could be said that this catalytic, forward-thinking project is 20 years in the making.

As a physical entity, the Tribune represents the very best in property reuse and redevelopment: the USDA recently recognized this with a grant award to Incourage to share the learning from our work on adaptive reuse of existing space with other local organizations. Rather than demolishing and building new, or worse, leaving the space vacant and susceptible to vandalism and other safety hazards, the Tribune is embracing the neighboring green spaces, pedestrian and bike trails, and deploying innovative, sustainable resident-informed programmatic uses and designs that celebrate our downtown’s greatest natural asset – the Wisconsin River.

The instructive question for all of us as we look at the broader downtown area, I believe, is “How do we achieve a balanced approach to community development that is inclusive and transparent?”  Balance takes into account the perspectives and interests of all stakeholders: private investors, public entities, resident/user input and philanthropic support.  The best outcomes are those that achieve a collective ‘common good’ vision that balance varied interests and create the conditions for all to participate and prosper.

I believe we can achieve those types of outcomes here with transparency, inclusive processes, relationships built on trust, principled leadership that is willing to forge ahead to achieve a common vision, and an unwavering belief that every person in this community matters. 

We owe it to our children and future generations to not have this blog held up 20 years from now as an example of missed opportunity to work collectively toward a common vision.      


Monday, March 16, 2015

Tribune. A Champion of the People.

“When neighbors help neighbors, and even when strangers help strangers, both those who help and those who are helped are transformed. When that which was their problem becomes our problem, there is a new connectedness and new forms of community are possible.” – Ambassador James Joseph

Residents involved with the Tribune Building Project have demonstrated a new connectedness by virtue of shifting from a mindset and cultural norm of “they will take care of it” to “I have a desire and responsibility to be involved” to “we have a shared purpose in this place.” They to Me to We. This shift didn’t happen overnight. But Ambassador Joseph is right. When transformation happens and people see each other with new eyes and practice empathy, new forms of community are possible. It is happening in south Wood County right now.

From the beginning, the Tribune was about more than the building.

When Incourage purchased the property it was with the intent that residents would decide its future use. And the Project has continued to build upon more than a decade of our investment in culture change, beginning with re-establishing trust and confidence in a community that was devastated by economic crisis and the resulting change in cultural norms.

Only a year after the Project began, our community’s narrative is beginning to change. I sense it. You can hear it. Residents have found their voice and are energized to connect with others and participate in meaningful ways.

As shared by Daily Tribune Media in a March 9 article written by Melanie Lawder (@mel_lawder): For young adults, Tribune Building means revitalization, residents are looking at our community through a new lens.

“After being part of (a) project like this, I feel like I have some ownership of this community,” shared Jacob Bertagnoli, Lincoln High School social studies teacher.

Katrina Hittner, co-owner of Family Natural Foods, said it was refreshing to see engagement involving residents across generations at the community meetings. “You leave that room feeling invigorated,” she said. “There’s this new energy and it’s really refreshing; everybody is excited about something.”

Today, as we’d hoped less than two years ago, the Tribune IS more than a building. It is a champion of the people. It represents unlimited potential to shape a new narrative. A colleague from a national foundation recently commented on our work with the Tribune as it relates to shaping new economic activity, “Big solutions are found in smaller pieces of work that must be done to foster authentic, sustainable change.” 

Take away the building, and I’m certain the movement that has been seeded as a result would not disappear. Because, we've all been transformed by the relationships built through this process. And more continue to join us each day.

Is it possible that the Tribune and the transformation it has had for those involved is just the beginning? I believe so. Because I believe, as residents are demonstrating, anything is possible.

Join us.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Trust, transparency and shared responsibility create strong communities.

Trust is essential in building community. Trust enables change, provides comfort during times of uncertainty and is the essential glue in constructive relationships. We have been very intentional about building trust for the past decade. Since 2005, hundreds of residents (and institutions) of all ages have benefited from “adaptive skills” training provided by Incourage. Said simply, adaptive skills equip people to work together in new and different ways. Projects, partnerships and volunteer efforts over the last decade have achieved greater impact by having residents involved who understand the critical need to build trust, clarify assumptions and establish shared goals and norms of behavior.

Building trust has proven and will continue to be a sound investment in sustainable, positive change.

Transparency, access to relevant information, and clarity around intentions are key to successful community building. Incourage stepped squarely into downtown development in Wisconsin Rapids with the purchase of the Daily Tribune Building. We have been – and continue to be – committed to modeling transparency, assuring access to relevant information and being very clear about our intentions. This commitment started before we purchased the property, when we reached out to the city to ask for partnership if we were to make this acquisition. We continued to demonstrate transparency the day we purchased the property. We knocked on our new neighbors doors, made introductions, handed out information related to purchase of the building and invited participation. We encountered many appreciative new neighbors and began our presence in downtown by being transparent in our actions and intentions.

Transparency has been key in every Tribune meeting hosted by Incourage, beginning with the first gathering of residents in September 2013. We established the practice of beginning every meeting with an update and providing responses to questions or issues that we heard surface between meetings. Our efforts to acquire a small, adjacent parking lot were a good example of this practice. We reported timely, transparent information about our unsuccessful efforts to acquire the parcel and continued efforts to partner with and understand the intentions of the new owner(s).

Shared Responsibility must be cultivated for communities to thrive. We must educate each other and future generations of this essential concept: by virtue of being connected in place, we have a shared destiny and a responsibility to be good stewards.

A responsibility to steward all of the resources entrusted to our care – natural resources, built resources and human resources – is embodied in the Native American concept of “Seventh Generation Thinking.” The Iroquois Nation describes the concept succinctly – "In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation... even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine."

The Tribune Building Project represents a new approach to community development – one that builds trust, transparency and mutual responsibility. As demonstrated through the Project, Incourage is committed to collaboration and modeling supportive behavior by:

  • Being transparent in our intentions;
  • Sharing accurate information in a timely manner;
  • Inviting courage to experiment;
  • Valuing individual contributions/ideas;
  • Building self-confidence and participation;
  • Nurturing innovation; and
  • Holding each other in trust.

The Tribune Project also demonstrates key elements of our vision at Incourage – a community that works well for all people. Incourage has worked to identify what that means to us – residents fully engaged in their community… family supporting work for all that live here… equal access to opportunity regardless of race, sex, income or geography… a culture built on trust, access to relevant information and shared responsibility. These are just a few of the things we feel are essential in a community that works well for all people. But we don’t represent the entire community. What does a community that works well for all people look like to you?

One thing I know for sure, our full potential – as a region, a community, individual neighborhoods, organizations and human beings – will only be realized when all parties work together to build trust, share relevant information and support collective responsibility by virtue of our shared community. The Tribune Building is a good start.