Door County’s Charities

Charity is more important to Door County than to any other community in Wisconsin.

Yes, I know, that sounds like hyperbole. Our hyper-competitive society already spends too much effort labeling things as the most, least, best or worst of something. So generally I try to be more moderate in my approach to most things. But when it comes to our beloved peninsula, this is an unavoidable conclusion. Charity really is more important to Door County than to any other community in Wisconsin.

It’s because the non-profit organizations of our community collectively play perhaps the most critical role in making Door County the unique community that it is, thereby attracting tourists, seasonal residents and retirees alike. Charity is also essential because it alleviates the challenges arising from the seasonal nature of our economy.

While the latter of those two observations is easy to understand, on the surface the former might seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, few of us consider charities as an economic engine. More often we think of the non-profit sector as an outgrowth of economic prosperity. While that holds true here as well, in Door County charities are an essential ingredient in what makes our community special.

Consider for a moment, what you love about Door County.

Perhaps it’s our vibrant arts community. It surrounds us with beauty, fills the air with music, and inspires our soul.

We’re blessed to have incredible live performances on the stages of the Door Community Auditorium, the Peninsula Players and the Third Avenue Playhouse. We laugh to the musicals of American Folklore Theatre and the comedies of Door Shakespeare. Midsummer’s Music and the Peninsula Music Festival provide the soundtrack for our summer.

Young people from across the nation come to learn at the Birch Creek Music Performance Center. And the Peninsula School of Art and the Clearing Folk School nurture the artist that lay within us all. The list could go on and on. How many other communities our size can boast of such an abundance of cultural resources?

These cultural icons enrich our lives and make our community unique. And all of them are charities. Collectively, these non-profit arts organizations are an essential part of our quality of life and are a key component of the Door County brand. These charities are a major part of the reason people visit here and keep coming back each year.

But maybe it’s not the arts that you love. Maybe what you love about Door County is our remarkable abundance of natural resources. From our lakeshore to the wetlands, our orchards to the meadows, the open spaces and rural roads – there is something about the beauty of this place that keeps us here or calls us back year after year.

So we count on the Door County Land Trust, the Door County Green Fund and the Nature Conservancy to work hard and protect environmentally importance places. The Ridges Sanctuary is perhaps the most biologically diverse piece of property in all of Wisconsin – and you can learn even more at the family environmental learning center known as Crossroads at Big Creek.

Our shores and waters are guarded by organizations like the Door County Environmental Council and the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership. Door County is also celebrated for its magnificent public parks. Each one of them is maintained and enhanced by vibrant citizens groups such as the Friends of Peninsula State Park, the Friends of Toft Point, the Newport Wilderness Society and the Friends of Whitefish Dunes.

The stewards and defenders of Door County’s environmental treasures are charities. They are the champions of the natural world and work every day to keep ours a wonderfully verdant community.

Collectively, these arts and environmental non-profit organizations are enriching our community. They are central to the quality of life that we love so much. But they are also driving our economy.

Although we’re physically at the end of the road, Door County spiritually exists at the crossroads of artistic and natural beauty. It’s this confluence of the arts and the environment that brings nearly two million visitors to our community each year. These tourists stay in our resorts, eat in our restaurants, and shop in our retail stores. The dollars they spend here not only impact the charities themselves, but they permeate throughout the for-profit businesses of our community.

A 2010 review by the Door County Community Foundation calculated that the economic impact of our local charitable sector is roughly 3,600 full-time equivalent jobs in Door County (see “Beyond the Rhetoric: The Economic Impact of Charity in Door County,” Door County Living 2011 Philanthropy Issue).

Now, there is a bit of a chicken versus the egg argument here. Undoubtedly these arts and environmental non-profits were founded by people who simply had a passion and wanted to do something for our community. Economic development was probably the furthest thing from their mind.

But over time, these charities both individually, and especially collectively, have become a core part of the Door County brand. Today it’s hard to deny that the attractions that draw folks to Door County are intimately tied to our charitable community. So a gift to charity in Door County isn’t just a contribution, it’s also an investment in our economic development. It’s helping sustain and advance the community we love.

But charity is more than just an economic development tool. It’s an essential part of our quality of life.

Maybe you first visited Door County for its environmental beauty and cultural amenities, but you were willing to make this your retirement home because of the infrastructure that’s here for you to enjoy.

Our community has two magnificent YMCA facilities, far larger and more elaborate than what you’ll find in any other community of our size. We have a state of the art fully accredited, acute-care hospital and outpatient facility in the Ministry Door County Medical Center. Scandia Village offers senior living, assisted living, and nursing home care for those who need a little help getting around. And Door County has more than 60 churches of any denomination you can imagine.

It’s simply amazing that we have all these amenities in a community of less than 30,000 residents. And every one of them is a charity.

Of course we also have our challenges as a community. Our seasonal community leads to an inordinate number of seasonal jobs, and that creates hardships for those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

Consider, for example, the life of a front desk clerk at a hotel. For the person working in that job in Chicago, Milwaukee or Green Bay, it’s full-time year-round employment. As a result, the desk clerk probably has health insurance through his employer. In Door County, that same position is only a seasonal job – which normally means that no benefits are provided.

Now, this isn’t meant to be a criticism of Door County seasonal employers, it’s just an economic fact of life when doing business here. But the reality is that few seasonal employees have access to affordable group health insurance through their employer. So we count on charities like the Community Clinic of Door County and the Ministry Door County Medical Center Foundation to provide health care services and subsidies to those who cannot afford it.

Unlike the big city hotel desk clerk who can count on stable income throughout the year, in Door County that job probably doesn’t exist for much of the off season. If they’re lucky, the desk clerk might be able to work additional hours in the summer months, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day to make up for the lack of employment after the season comes to an end. So we need groups like Lakeshore CAP and Feed and Clothe My People to fill the cupboard in winter when summer’s wages are gone. We count on WEP’s Energy Assistance Programs to help those who cannot afford to keep their home warm after the weather turns cold.

Certainly every community has its share of economic challenges, but the unique nature of Door County’s seasonal economy exacerbates the strains on our working families. That in turn increases the importance of our local charities as they address the issues that have been magnified by our reliance on seasonal jobs.

So it’s not hyperbole when I say that charity is more important to Door County than any other community in Wisconsin. Our arts and environmental charities are the major engine of our tourist and seasonal resident economy. Charities provide the amenities which make this an attractive place to retire. And our human service and healthcare charities alleviate the stresses that result from the seasonal nature of our economy.

That’s why we have so many charities in Door County. We need these organizations working hard to both drive our economy and improve our quality of life. These charities are non-profit because, generally speaking, there is no profit to be made. Their future is dependent upon the generosity of people like you.

And because charity is so important to Door County, our community’s future is equally dependent on the generosity of people like you.

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