News & Media

Kelly Ryan Blog: Balance, transparency and equity: keys to sustainable development

Wed. May 13, 2015

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 anddemonstration 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.


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  • About Incourage

    Established in rural Wisconsin in 1994 to serve the changing needs of the south Wood County area, Incourage has become a nationally-recognized leader in place-based philanthropy and community development. Guided by values of equity, opportunity, and shared stewardship, Incourage envisions a community that works well for all people. One physical manifestation of this vision is the redevelopment of the Tribune building, which demonstrates Incourage’s user-centered approach to growing a strong and inclusive local economy.