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Commentary: A Community Worth Fighting For

I remember June 13, 2015, very clearly. It was a typically beautiful Saturday in Door County. The sun was shining; people were smiling; and seemingly all was right with the world. I was standing in front of a party tent, looking out over the crowd, waiting to be invited to the microphone to speak. We had all gathered on Sturgeon Bay’s west side to cut a ribbon and celebrate the grand opening of our community’s new skatepark. The Door County Community Foundation had played a modest role in helping to bring this project into being, so I was asked to offer a few comments on this exciting day.

I had written out some notes of the things I wanted to say that are customary for such an occasion. The skatepark is a wonderful gift to our community. Private philanthropic dollars were used to construct this new facility, thereby allowing the county’s residents to enjoy this terrific new park at virtually no cost to the city’s taxpayers. There were people who needed to be thanked and congratulations that had to be offered to those who gave our community this amazing gift. That’s what I had intended to say.

As I stepped up to the microphone, I surveyed the crowd and was heartened to see those who were in attendance. Sturgeon Bay’s mayor and several (then) City Council members were standing off to my left, all chatting with broad smiles on their faces. To the right side of the crowd, I noticed a number of our most vocal citizens who – even their detractors would agree – are passionate and effective advocates for the causes about which they care most. They, too, were filled with glee and laughter. Everyone was in a wonderful mood.

It was at that very moment that I put my notes back in my pocket. There was something else I felt compelled to say.

I told the crowd how impressive it was that people who disagree on so many things had set aside their differences to work together to build this skatepark. From elected leaders to community activists to young people in our community, these good folks had realized that they actually do have something very important in common. Rather than let their differences on countless other issues prevent them from collaborating on any project, they chose to focus on the one project on which they could all agree.

Yet I noted that the important thing they have in common is not a desire to build a skatepark. What truly binds them together is a love for this place we call home. Each of them cares deeply about Door County and readily gives of themselves to make it better. I said that I’d seen their love and commitment to our community firsthand as I’d worked with each of them on this project. I know that they’d seen glimpses of it in each other as well.

Then I asked why so many of us seem to have overlooked the best in each other when it comes to another project just three blocks down the road.

For some context, in 2015, around the time of the grand opening of the skatepark, the city was in the midst of a fight over the use of the westside waterfront area some three blocks from the skatepark. The mayor, the former City Council and several other residents were in favor of building the proposed Sawyer Hotel on that waterfront property. In opposition were numerous vocal citizens who were arguing against what they called the “big, dumb hotel.”

As I stood at the microphone on that beautiful early summer day, I couldn’t help but point out the sad irony of it all. Several of those same people who were standing and smiling together in the crowd at the new skatepark were also demonizing each other over a hotel project just three blocks down the road.

I asked the crowd to take the lessons from this skatepark experience and apply it to their dispute over the westside waterfront. There’s nothing wrong about passionate people who care deeply for Door County talking through their differing ideas as to what’s best for our community’s future. In fact, we want a diversity of ideas because it is through a discussion of alternative futures that we will arrive at the most vibrant vision for all of Door County. However, if we choose to demonize those who disagree with our position on the current issue, we cannot have a productive conversation when confronted with the next issue.

Our most fundamental shared value is that we all love Door County, and each of us wants it to thrive. It’s that very value that inspires so many good people to get involved in public life as volunteers, activists or elected officials. Very often we find ourselves differing as to whether we should build this building, preserve this structure or enact this policy. If we begin these difficult conversations rooted in the recognition that we’re all trying to do what’s right for our community, then we can continue to be an actual community. But when we question the motives and impugn the integrity of those neighbors with whom we disagree, we rip the very fabric that binds us together.

Those comments I made four years ago seem even more poignant today. Our community is now engaged in a great debate over the future of the Teweles and Brandeis Grain Elevator. Although the Door County Community Foundation is facilitating a significant contribution from a few donor families that want to preserve the granary, the Community Foundation itself has taken no formal position on the matter except one: We ask that each of you begin the conversation by assuming that everyone involved loves this community as much as you do. We at the Community Foundation have worked on numerous projects with most of the key players in the middle of this dispute. We know from our own experience that virtually all of them are good people who are trying to do what they think is in the best interests of Door County.

At the Community Foundation, we recognize and honor the passion of those volunteers who have dedicated an enormous amount of time and money to save what they consider to be a historic treasure of Door County’s agrarian past. We also acknowledge and appreciate those who question whether it is prudent to spend a significant amount of money, private or otherwise, to save what they consider to be a dilapidated, old building. Reasonable people can disagree on what is the best vision for our shared future.

Where it becomes unreasonable is when people start posting on Facebook calling for a bonfire. It becomes unproductive when we use words like “buffoons” or “criminals” to describe honest people with whom we disagree. It becomes a tumor when we accuse others of violating their oath of office or acting unethically simply because they take a stand on an issue that is different from ours. It becomes a cancer when we assume those who oppose us must be doing so because they don’t love Door County as much as we do.

I don’t know how this dispute over the future of the granary is going to end, but I do know that eventually it will end. We’re going to have to continue to live together on this little peninsula when this fight is a distant memory. We had better take greater care in how we in this community talk with each other today, or we may find that our community of tomorrow may not be worth fighting for at all.

Bret Bicoy is president and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at [email protected]