New Tool

August 31, 2009

I’ve written before about economic development strategies aimed at small business.  Micro-enterprises are the backbone of many economies, especially in neighborhoods and rural areas.  The arts, local foods and other emerging “industry clusters” are starting to be recognized as viable economic engines, as well they should.

Recently, a new tool has emerged that may prove a useful addition to the community developer’s tool belt.  Consider a marriage between a Community Foundation and economic development organization.

Wisconsin has many excellent Community Foundations, and they come in various shapes and sizes.  In a nutshell, these organizations help invest local donations to earn the best possible return.  Communities can then grant proceeds while never touching the principal.  For years, much good charitable work has been funded through Community Foundations, but bolstering business development is not all that common in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s “Strengthening Rural Families” policy team saw an opportunity there and identified community philanthropy as a growing opportunity for rural areas to maintain and grow local wealth and to put that wealth to use in enhancing the local economy.

Recently leaders of two areas in Wisconsin met to study how Community Foundations and local funds can target resources to spur local economic development.   Wisconsin Rural Partners, a statewide non-profit organization that works to build networks, leadership and voice for rural areas of our state, brought Don Macke of the Rural Policy Research Institute (RURPI) to Wisconsin to work with these groups.

Don is an old hand at many things that fall under the “community development” umbrella and is fluent in both the Community Foundation and economic development aspects of the equation.  The organizations he works with are worth some study.  The RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship is a focal point for efforts to stimulate and support private and public entrepreneurship development in communities throughout rural America.

Hometown Competitiveness is a partnership between the Nebraska Community Foundation, RUPRI and the Heartland center for Leadership Development.  The program provides a long-term approach to community sustainability through four interrelated strategies: Developing Leadership; Energizing Entrepreneurs, Engaging Youth and Charitable Giving.

Urban as well as rural leaders can benefit from some of the strategies and models these organizations offer.

Back in Wisconsin, the “Northwoods” region team includes a diverse group of University of Wisconsin Extension agents, business leaders, and the Northwoods NiiJii Enterprise Community, a unique and highly effective community development corporation.  (NiiJii is a partnership between the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and the Sokaogon Chippewa Community of Mole Lake, together with eight municipal partners in northern Wisconsin.)

The team from Crawford County got an early start and is off and running.  Less than a year old they have aligned with the Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin to start a county-wide fund.  A board of the county’s shakers and movers was formed, and, in short order, met a challenge grant from an anonymous donor.  Recently they gave $5,000 in grants for very nifty purposes, and these give a good indication of what this “marriage” is all about:

  • A feasibility study for a community commercial grade kitchen to be used by local food producers to help get their products to market;
  • Coupons for food pantry clients in Gays Mills, Ferryville and Prairie du Chien to be used for locally grown fresh produce sold at Farmers Markets ;
  • Kickapoo River log jam clean-up project to help promote tourism.

There are a number of advantages to adding this new tool to a community’s resource chest.  Oftentimes the endowment is invested through local institutions, which helps strengthen the entire community and endowments are ideal for situations where you’re in it for the long haul.  From the donor standpoint, a gift to an endowment is forever.

When a Community Fund works with economic development leaders, it helps to build a better entrepreneurial climate.  Creative people often look for communities – urban and rural – that have outstanding quality of life factors, other innovative folks and an acceptance of things that are new and different.

Many of the more successful communities doing these things have strong local control, but still view themselves as part of a greater region.  Thinking and acting like a region is getting popular because many communities are finding that it can be a win/win situation.  Both teams I mentioned above are taking a regional, multi-community approach.

If you’re interested in any of this, a great example from Wisconsin is the Community Progress Initiative, a partnership of the Community Foundation of Greater South Wood County and the Heart of Wisconsin Business and Economic Alliance.  Check out all they do – it’s impressive.

You can also visit the Donors Forum of Wisconsin for information on Community Foundations or look-up info on Hometown Competitiveness or the RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship.

We’d especially like to hear from you if you know of some successful marriages between Community Foundations and economic development.

Ricky Rolfsmeyer, Wisconsin Rural Partners, Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)

Owteno Viola Award

August 29, 2009

I have a love/hate relationship with awards. Sometimes I find them silly; simply attend an event and you receive an award. Sometimes I find them totally frustrating; the criteria so subjective you have a greater chance of winning the lotto then bringing home the “prize’. And occasionally, they are so appropriately awarded that you breathe a sigh of complete satisfaction. Some awards are handed out for a body of work already completed; the touted lifetime achievement awards. They leave me wondering if the person is now off the hook. They never need accomplish anything else in life. Some awards are given in out in anticipation of greatness yet to come. It is for everyone to see if the artist can ever achieve enough to live up to the award. And occasionally, the award does both, it sings of what the artist has already accomplished while speaking to the potential which still lays within.rhythm-and-bows

Recently a friend, neighbor,  and colleague of mine, Randy Sabien, was presented with the 2009 Owteno Award from The Viola Foundation, an award that caused me to sigh with great satisfaction and marvel at it’s intent. The Owteno Award is given out to “the applicant most likely to positively impact the viola community at large.” The award is the use of a viola and bow for life, hand selected for the recipient. So why is this award so interesting…It’s because Randy is not a violist. He’s a jazz violinist, a renown jazz violinist and music educator. So why a viola award. In presenting the award, the Viola Foundation stated, ” With your recent appointment as the Chairman of the String Department at McNally Smith College of Music and your long and constantly evolving use of the violin, we believe you are in the best position to advance the viola and its role in alternative music in the years ahead.” How perfect an award is that. It rewards what Randy has already accomplished during a lifetime on the violin and then challenges him to take the potential they see and do it all again with the viola. It’s so beautiful I wish I had thought of it myself.

Just recently Randy picked up his Brian Derber viola and Hartmut Knoll bow from the Claire Givens Violin Shop in Minneapolis. Now I’m waiting for the day when he walks on stage with not one instrument but two. My guess is, I won’t have long to wait.

Dayle Quigley

Island of Refuge

August 25, 2009
Administration Building, Wisconsin Home of the Feeble-Minded, 1897. Photo: Northern Wisconsin Center.

Administration Building, Wisconsin Home for the Feeble- Minded, 1897. Photo: Northern Wisconsin Center.

The recent passing of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founding mother of the Special Olympics, reminds me of the progress we have made in how we perceive and interact with developmentally disabled people.  Shriver’s work was part of a larger movement to return these “special” people to the mainstream of society that many of them had been locked out of for decades.

Wisconsin began its segregation of the developmentally disabled and of those suffering from epilepsy in the 1890s. After years of debate and numerous revelations of the inhumane and often abusive care provided by local governments, the legislature established the Wisconsin Home for the Feeble-Minded.  Brutal as it sounds today, the term feeble-minded was accepted usage in the 19th century, when moron, imbecile and idiot were the clinically accepted headings under which degrees of intellectual disability were filed.

The Wisconsin Home was built on one thousand acres of wild parkland on the banks of the Chippewa River east of Chippewa Falls. The setting was truly idyllic, with fresh water springs, grassy meadows and groves of tall trees. The location reflected the not inaccurate belief that the country was a healthier place to live than the city. And it was isolated, away from large population centers. The reformers who founded the Home wanted it to be an island of refuge whose “inmates” would neither do harm nor be harmed.

"Inmates" at the Wisconsin Home for the Feeble Minded, 1900s. Photo: Northern Wisconsin Center.

"Inmates" at the Wisconsin Home for the Feeble Minded, 1900s. Photo: Northern Wisconsin Center.

Twenty formidible brick and stone buildings were in the original plan, later expanded to twice that number and more. The first inmate  crossed the threshold in June 1897. By October, twelve hundred were admitted.

Most were children of poverty, the offspring of parents without the means to care for a child with special needs, or orphans who, because of their disability, were not likely to be adopted by extended family or friends.  Fear was  a motivating factor. Parents and local officials feared that the slow-witted boy would mature into an unmanageable, dangerous man and the simple-minded girl would develop into a promiscuous breeder of more children just like her.

The humane, progressive, forward-thinking course was to sequester these youngsters on the island, train them to perform the simple tasks of farm labor, handicrafts and house keeping, and put them to work. They would raise and preserve nearly all the food they ate, build much of their furniture, make, mend and launder clothing, cook and clean, maintain the grounds and, as teenagers and older, care for younger inmates.  Given  useful work and a productive role, they would remain on the island for life.

As the initial training programs succeeded and were improved by the addition of  “special education” classes in the early 1900s,  they sowed the seeds of the Home’s demise.  If developmentally disabled people could be trained to function on the island, they could be trained to function off of it as well.

A 2009 Special Olympics champion.

A 2009 Special Olympics champion.

It took many years of slow progress in the law, medicine, education, civil rights  and, most importantly, in the attitude of  those of us who are not developmentally disabled for the “inmates” to be allowed to leave the island.  For that attitudinal change we owe much to Eunice Kennedy Shriver and countless other less-heralded activists.

The “inmates” of 1897 are today’s Special Olympians and on the island no more.

–Michael Goc

The Turnaround King Comes to Town

August 25, 2009

As part of an intense 50-state Arts in Crisis tour, Michael Kaiser blew into Madison on Monday with practical advice for Wisconsin’s arts organizations.

kaiserThe President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Kaiser has been nicknamed the “turnaround king” for his successful leadership of financially challenged performing arts groups — among them, the Kansas City Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre and London’s Royal Opera House.

His 2008 book The Art of the Turnaround tells the back stories behind these happy endings, while outlining a common sense ten-rule approach to healing “sick” organizations. Yesterday’s easygoing presentation touched on most of them, but two ground rules stand out.

  1. What to do: Plan, plan, plan.  Kaiser says even when day-to-day survival seems uncertain, it’s crucial to think far into an organization’s future, with bold programming that excites patrons and benefactors. Having a good five-year plan allows for fluctuations in the economy and gives executive directors more leeway to fulfill the vision of the artistic director. And, he points out, “You make better art if you take more time.”
  2. What not to do: Cut programming. Arts organizations that feel financially threatened often make cuts to  artistic initiatives and marketing initiatives first, which may seem most discretionary. Kaiser cautions against the urge to do so, though. When programs are cut, organizations make themselves increasingly irrelevant, he says. “This is the time to be adventuresome … make great art, and follow it with great marketing.”

Kaiser says the public-private nature of the Kennedy Center — not only as a national memorial to the late president but as the country’s performing arts center — obligates him to offer services outside of Washington, D.C. It’s that sense of obligation that gave rise to the tour, as well as the Kennedy Center’s Arts in Crisis initiative.

And while he may have left as quickly as he arrived, struggling organizations can still benefit from Kaiser’s expertise. At the project Web site, non-profit arts groups can register for free consulting from Kaiser, his staff and approved mentors. An additional Web site,, offers news and commentary, materials and networking opportunities.

Monday’s presentation was made possible by Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, the Wisconsin Arts Board, Arts Wisconsin, City of Madison Arts Commission and the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission.

Interested in viewing Michael Kaiser’s talk in its entirety? WisconsinEye will soon stream a video of  his Overture Center visit on its Web site.

WPR Remembers Les Paul

August 14, 2009

From Wisconsin Public Radio‘s Web site:

Les Paul. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Les Paul. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

“Musician, inventor, and Waukesha native Les Paul has died at the age of 94. The legendary guitarist is credited with helping bring the rise of rock and roll music, with the electric guitar and multi-track recording. WPR’s Chuck Quirmbach interviewed Paul after a May 2007 showing of a documentary about his life and contributions to music.”

You can download the interview by visiting WPR’s homepage.

And here’s a link to the documentary Chasing Sound, where you can watch clips, view images of Paul and his hometown of Waukesha and learn more about one of Wisconsin’s own:

The Arachnologist Delivers

August 12, 2009

The guy who delivered my pizza last night loves spiders. I turned on the porch light as I stepped outside to take the boxes. The large spider that hangs out over the light was center stage and we were soon talking about how cool he was. I learned that Pizza Guy likes to take pictures of spiders, which he sometimes enlarges as prints for his walls. He had his camera in the car, so I invited him to take a picture of my porch spider, and I also got to see a few other spider shots he had stored on the memory card.

Simply a porch spider. Photo by Jessica Becker

Simply a porch spider. Photo by Jessica Becker

I don’t personally care that much about spiders, but I’m no arachnophobe, either. When I stopped to look at this eight-legged critter, I wanted to know more about him. Specifically, I wanted to know what kind of spider it was. That’s just the way I am, so I was intrigued when Pizza Guy said he believed it was related to a tarantula.

“Really?” I asked more impressed than incredulous. But his response was: “That’s what I believe.”

I take that to mean he really had no idea what kind of spider it was. He simply appreciated it for its intrinsic, perhaps aesthetic, value. How refreshing.

I am so used to hanging out with people who are the epitome of “inquiring minds want to know.” This is made finger-tip easy by the iphone and other phone-to-Web applications.  It’s hard to get through a conversation without someone fact-checking a comment, or pulling up a graphic to illustrate their point, or finding out just exactly who did originally say that, and when.

It really wouldn’t be all that difficult to figure out what kind of spider it is hanging out above my porch light. But, who cares, really? I believe he eats mosquitoes, which makes me happy to have him around.

by Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

The Public Option

August 10, 2009

Historically-minded people often discern similiarities between events past and present and can’t resist the temptation to share them.  So be warned, here’s one now.

The current debate over the expansion of the federal government’s role in providing health insurance to Americans resembles the discussion–to put it mildly–that occurred in the mid-1930s on whether the United States should fund the extension of electrical service to rural areas unserved by investor-owned utilities.  It was the 1930’s version of the familiar public-versus-private debate that is as old as the republic.

The need was obvious. Ninety percent of the six million American farmsteads did not have electricity. Basic amenities that urban Americans had enjoyed for decades–modern lighting, running water, indoor toilets–were absent, as were “luxuries” like radios, refrigerators, automatic hot water heaters and kitchen stoves that did not burn wood.


In the 1930s, standards of living on American farms lagged far behind those in cities. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

That was in the farm house. In farm yards, barns, sheds and shops, electrical power would save labor, make for a better-lighted, safer working environment, increase productivity and boost income. An electric water pump meant a farmer had only to turn the handle on a faucet to water his livestock instead of pumping hundreds of gallons by hand or relying on a windmill that did not always spin. Electric motors could also power the numerous choppers, grinders, mixers and loaders that were vital to handling everything from shelled corn to shredded silage. Electricity would bring American farming into the 20th Century.

In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Rural Electricification Administration. The following year, Congress appropriated $100 million and charged the REA to make low interest loans to public and investor-owned utilities to run power lines in rural areas.

Then the debate began. The power companies said that if they borrowed the entire $100 million they could extend power to another 200,000 farms–maybe. That would leave about 5.2 million unserved. A dismayed Senator Frank Norris, the prairie progressive from Nebraska, succeeded in amending the REA legislation to require that loans  be made only to organizations  agreeing to extend power to all consumers in their service area. Norris’s “all-inclusion” provision prevented the power companies from using taxpayer dollars to “cherry pick”  their customers. Obliged to serve both the big farm on the county highway and the hardscrabble homestead up the hollow, the power companies passed on the loan program.

Farmers themselves stepped up. Often led by university-extension county agents, they organized cooperatives that collected membership fees as low as one dollar per farm, established local distribution systems, and purchased power from the investor-owned utilities.

In Wisconsin, two cooperatives lay claim to the honor of being the first to deliver power to farmer members. On or about the same day in May 1937, Richland County Electric Cooperative and Columbus Rural Electric Cooperative energized their first power lines.

1950s Iowa farm kids, part of the first generation of rural Americans born on farms with electrical power.  Photo: Author.

1950s Iowa farm kids, part of the first generation of rural Americans born on farms with electrical power. Photo: Author.

Cooperatives spread and today there are over nine hundred rural electric cooperatives serving forty-two million people in forty-seven states. There would be more had the private utilities not responded as they did. Faced with competition from the “public option” they discovered that they really could extend service to millions–not just thousands–of farmers.

As a result, electrical power came to rural America. It was a precondition for the transformation that occurred in the countryside in the years after World War II.

What would a public option as real as the rural electric cooperatives mean for American health care today?

–Michael Goc

From jewels to a necklace

August 7, 2009

Wisconsin has a large number of art environments and other roadside attractions. For years our family plotted many of these on our vacation itineraries, being especially enamored of the little out-of-the-way spots borne of common – albeit highly creative – Wisconsinites. That was part of the appeal for us.

The beautiful fence at Prairie Moon

The beautiful fence at Prairie Moon

In a 2008 article travel writer Mary Bergin stated that,Wisconsin is a global leader in the identification and preservation of such projects, also known as outsider art.”

I never thought much about the unique propensity of Wisconsin folks to create stuff in yards and on houses or darn near anywhere until I chanced upon a web site that all but proclaimed our state to be roadside art royalty:  “Wisconsin: The roadside genius state.”  Wow.  Is there something in our water?

The Interestingideas web site says, “Per square mile, the quality and number of (Wisconsin’s) art environments are unmatched. The grottos, sculpture gardens and personal statements run the length of the state and the gamut, from the grand religious messages of Holy Ghost Park in southwestern Dickeyville to Fred Smith’s patriotic masterwork in north-central Phillips.”

If you’re a Cheesehead, you’ve got to love it.

The John Michael Kohler Art Center of Sheboygan is home to the works of scores of self-taught artists, and host to some of the best information on art environments.  They describe these unique places as large-scale works that are among the grandest, most astonishing, and original visions in American art. Artist-environment builders have transformed homes, yards, meeting halls, churchyards, or other spaces into otherworldly realms. In the hands of these artists, patches of wilderness have become transcendent kingdoms; intimate interiors are forays into fantasy; structures and yards are simultaneously museum and masterpiece.

All of the sites are unique, and I’ve blogged before about Nick Engelbert’s Grandview where I volunteer.  But in addition to our individuality

Fred Smith's work at the Wisconsin Concrete Park in Price County

Fred Smith's work at the Wisconsin Concrete Park in Price County

we have much in common and plenty of reason to collaborate.  The folks who operate nine of these little gems wondered what we could do together. So, with some reinforcement, we formed the Wisconsin Art Environment Consortium.

I suppose we look like an odd bunch to many in the tourism business – some might wonder where the water slides are.  Not to be daunted, though, we tried a small project in 2008 called American Masterpieces.  The marriage was a success.

So recently our group of artist environments became midwife to a larger effort – nurturing the birth of a major project: Wandering Wisconsin.  It is a unique collaboration indeed.  We hope to communicate more effectively to the general public about these environments and the people who built them.  We hope to help folks understand what was in the hearts and minds of these artists, not just how skilled or what creative thinkers they were.  And we really want people to visit.

Each of these roadside attractions tells a unique American story in art, tracing the maker’s cultural heritage and rich traditions. You can spend a day, a weekend, or an extended vacation exploring the art, architecture, and gardens of one indoor site and eight outdoor sites:

  • Carl Peterson Garden (Sheboygan)
  • Dickeyville Grotto (southwest Wisconsin)
  • Ernest Hüpeden’s Painted Forest (Sauk County)
  • Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park (Price County)
  • Herman Rusch’s Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden and Museum (Buffalo County)
  • James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden (near Sheboygan)
  • Nick Engelbert’s Grandview (Iowa County)
  • Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto (Monroe County)
  • Rudolph Grotto Gardens and Wonder Cave (near Stevens Point)
The work of James Tellen

The work of James Tellen

Wandering Wisconsin includes five sample itineraries. Take these preplanned journeys or make one of your own.  Each itinerary provides suggested stops along the way so you can dine, find lodging or spend some time exploring the other local treasures and unique attractions of the area.

Bill at the Interstingideas web site said, “It’s to Wisconsin’s credit that many of these places are actually being treated as a heritage to be preserved, with the Kohler Foundation working to conserve several of them.”

This is way true.  And I could not write about Wandering Wisconsin without mentioning the John Michael Kohler Arts Center with Ruth DeYoung Kohler and her amazing staff, and Terri Yoho and the board and staff of the Kohler Foundation.  They are the glue that holds us together, and they provide strength when we need it and the faith that we can actually do stuff like this.

The Dickeyville Grotto

The Dickeyville Grotto

You see, the people who operate the sites that comprise Wandering Wisconsin are not professional administrators or tourism gurus. We’re common, mostly rural folk. Maybe somewhat like the artists themselves.  We love these places – we’re friends and neighbors – and are dedicated to spend our free time working to preserve them and make them available to be enjoyed by others.

You can get a taste of what Wandering Wisconsin has to offer by visiting our website, where you can also get an information packet with maps, discounts and more. You may also contact the John Michael Kohler Arts Center at 920-458-6144 or e-mail

So perhaps a number of individual jewels have now become a necklace.  A true Wisconsin-made necklace of originality.

Come visit. And if you can, take an extended tour. Then share your unique and fun experiences on Facebook–just search for Wandering Wisconsin.

Ricky Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)

Listen. Watch. Change. (Then share your ideas with us.)

August 4, 2009

On Wisconsin Public Television Tuesday night, a 57-minute version of the feature-length documentary Playing for Change: Peace through Music premieres.

The video follows record producer Mark Johnson’s multimedia, multicontinent music project, which he says, “was born out of the idea that we have to inspire each other to come together as a human race, and that music is the best way to do this.” Sure, change is a word made trite in 2008, but there’s nothing trite about these artists or these songs.

Below, a cover of the tune that started it all, Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” The musicians in the clip had never met each other, and they performed (via Johnson’s mobile recording studio) in locations as distant as Santa Monica, New Orleans,  Zuni, New Mexico, Amsterdam, Caracas, Barcelona and Umlazi, South Africa:

Because I manage the Web site, I’m intrigued by Playing for Change. Our site’s mission is to support Wisconsin’s arts, culture, humanities and history, and we do this by bringing arts and culture lovers together with visual and literary artists, performers, authors, scholars and historians from around the state.

After learning about Mark Johnson’s project, I’m wondering how we can use to extend our reach — from Milwaukee to Lac du Flambeau to La Crosse, and all the places in between. Using the resources we have in place, how can we bring arts and culture to your children’s schools, to your neighborhoods and to your lives? Even more exciting to me right now, how might become a place where we inspire residents from the state’s farthest reaches to come together to create, much like Mark Johnson has?

Watch Playing for Change on WPT at 8:30 p.m., August 4; view Bill Moyers’ interview with Mark Johnson online;  or listen to an archived interview of Johnson conducted by Wisconsin Public Radio‘s own Jean Feraca (visit Here on Earth‘s April archive, and select April 21).

Then, send your comments and ideas. You can contact us at, call us toll-free at 866-558-4766 or use the comment form below to post your thoughts to this blog.

–Tammy Kempfert