Commentary: Learning from Others


I’d like to thank Cap Wulf for his recent letter bemoaning the lack of community involvement in decisions made about our westside waterfront.

In the past year, by visiting two cities that have “gotten it right,” I’ve learned some inspiring things I didn’t know about the processes communities are using to make big decisions about their future. Mr. Wulf is absolutely correct; community engagement is critical.

Last spring, a group of 12 Sturgeon Bay citizens visited the City of Eau Claire to meet with the mayor, city planners, council members and developers. Eau Claire has revitalized its downtown waterfront and surrounding neighborhoods mainly through the development of Phoenix Park, a public green space that includes a farmer’s market, labyrinth, trailhead building and concert venues. Around and overlooking the park are new apartments, condominiums and office buildings. Kerry Kincaid, the woman who presided over their city council during the process, said they held 57 public meetings to create the vision, enthuse the community and garner the needed support. Today Eau Claire is winning national awards for community engagement.

Wisconsin Rapids is another award-winning community involved in redesigning its waterfront. At the center of its effort is The Tribune Building, which I toured last fall. Wanting as much input from as many stakeholders as possible, project leaders have held meetings at noon, in the afternoon and in the evening to accommodate various schedules. They’ve offered transportation, provided childcare, and even, in some cases, dinner. They’ve held meetings at senior centers and places of employment. All told, they’ve held more than 6,300 hours of meetings to get people talking about what they want in their community. Site tours, a website and newsletters keep people informed as progress is made. Prominently displayed on their communication is a statement that reflects their values: “Everyone is welcome, whether or not you have been to previous meetings…together we’re shaping the future of the south Wood County area.“ Last fall, the Tribune Building was awarded a Wisconsin Economic Development grant of $472,000 for community-driven efforts.

What these communities and others closer to us (Fish Creek, Jacksonport and Baileys Harbor to name a few) are doing is called Community-driven Development.

Community-driven development embraces the idea that control over development belongs to the people living in and using the area being developed and that it is in the best interest of the community to proactively seek their input. It’s a model that was created in the 1990s and has been widely used in New Orleans and elsewhere. It is collaborative, responsive and time-consuming. The communities that choose to use it don’t do so because they have to; they do so because input builds enthusiasm and enthusiasm builds further engagement. When people are enthused and engaged in their communities, they not only bring their ideas and their talents, they also bring their businesses and capital and their friends’ business and capital.

As a member of the Waterfront Redevelopment Authority and the owner of property in the tax incremental funding district, Mr. Wulf clearly cares about what happens to our westside waterfront and so do many others. Those who’ve expressed concern about the hotel and current plans and hope for a different vision and a different process have been portrayed as against the city. Nothing could be farther from the truth. When Ed McMahon, one of our country’s most respected urban planners, visited Door County a number of years ago, he encouraged us to save the best of what we have for everyone and reminded us that “everyone” refers to current residents and future generations. In his words, “If I have learned anything from my career in urban planning, it is this: a community’s appeal drives economic prosperity. I have also learned that while change is inevitable, the destruction of a community’s unique character and identity is not…Communities can grow without destroying the things that people love.”

There is no doubt that people love the little piece of property that sits between our two downtown bridges, provides views of tugboats and frames an authentic working waterfront. Whether you call this parcel our brand or our identity or our city’s soul, it tells the world at a glance who we are and it holds a lot of potential for who we can become. It’s worth getting it right. Let’s start talking again. Let’s go back to the drawing board.


LaurelHauser_LVP3885Laurel Hauser lives in Sturgeon Bay. She is the former Director of Charitable Giving for the Door County Land Trust. She has served on the Sturgeon Bay Plan Commission and co-chaired the Sturgeon Bay Skatepark Initiative. She is currently working as a freelance writer.

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