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Chippewa Valley leaders aim to shape region's creative economy future with new initiative

Saturday, November 25, 2017
Eric Lindquist | Leader-Telegram

Partners in the project are Eau Claire County and the cities of Eau Claire and Altoona

Instead of just accepting whatever happens down the road, Chippewa Valley leaders have launched a project with an ambitious goal: shaping the region's future.

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Specifically, the Chippewa Valley Future Region project starts with the premise that regional residents want to develop and nurture the vibrant creative economy that already has been ignited by the likes of Bon Iver, an impressive lineup of music festivals, UW-Eau Claire, Artisan Forge Studios and the Confluence Project.

The initiative, funded in part by a grant from the Local Government Institute of Wisconsin, seeks to go beyond platitudes about building a better future. The goal is to define the desired future for the Chippewa Valley and then identify action items that will help transform that vision into reality.

Partners in the project are Eau Claire County and the cities of Eau Claire and Altoona.  

"We already have a vibrant music and arts scene, and those things are happening organically, but we're asking how local governments can keep that going and become part of that," Eau Claire County Administrator Kathryn Schauf said. "This seems like the next logical step."

Altoona city Administrator Mike Golat described the recent local advances in the creative economy as driving "kind of a renaissance" for the Chippewa Valley.

"Everyone likes that it's happening," Golat said. "This is kind of a broad look toward the future in terms of how we can keep this momentum moving forward and identify any things out there that could threaten our creative economy or gaps we're missing that we could do more to nurture."

The creative economy is widely expected to be a key component of economic development in a U.S. economy based less and less on manufacturing. It likely will be driven by individuals who economist and social scientist Richard Florida has called the creative class, composed of artists, musicians, writers, scientists, engineers, university professors and others who create new ideas, new technology and creative content. 

"Not only is it becoming a larger part of the economy, but it's also what makes a community attractive, and that's becoming increasingly important in attracting talent and economic development in general because people more and more have choice in where they live," Golat said. "Millennials in particular are more inclined to look at quality of life and where they work before looking at the job in particular. We want to create that quality of life to attract more millennials and members of the creative class."

That will benefit everyone, not just those employed in industries normally associated with creativity, Altoona city planner Joshua Clements said. 

'Game plan'

The Future Regions initiative began this spring when the Local Government Institute put out a call for Wisconsin communities "committed to working across government and stakeholder boundaries to design ambitious and resilient futures." The nonpartisan, nonprofit corporation committed to underwrite up to 50 percent of the cost. A key requirement, as one of the goals is to promote collaboration across boundaries, was that all regions had to include at least two local units of government.

Racine County, soon to be home to a massive Foxconn Technology Group plant lured by the state's $3 billion incentive package, and the Chippewa Valley submitted the first two winning applications. Futurist and economist Rebecca Ryan of Madison-based Next Generation Consulting will employ a process known as strategic foresight in working with grant recipients. In the Chippewa Valley, the $17,500 grant will be matched by the participating municipalities. 

The Chippewa Valley Future Region project kicked off Nov. 1 with a workshop, attended by about 80 area residents, in which participants assessed economic, societal and political trends that could affect the region's future. 

"You could sense the energy in the room," said Josh Solinger, a budget analyst for the city Eau Claire who is working with the online citizen engagement aspect of the project, noting that many participants were passionate about the creative economy.

"It's a chance to think about what our future opportunities and challenges are and kind of game-plan," Solinger said.

Ryan, one of a handful of trained futurists from Wisconsin, has worked with clients around the world to prepare for the future. 

During the first Chippewa Valley workshop, she told participants that futuring is a common practice among businesses, but local governments typically base their planning on what they've done in the past. However, that approach only works well in an environment where nothing is changing, she said.

By contrast, she directed participants to set their sights 20 years into the future. Ryan said the group would face the future through discussions that would help them develop "a robust sense of what we want the future to look like."

Working together

At minimum, the process should promote more intergovernmental cooperation and help local leaders "understand collectively what our optimal future is," Golat said.

"As you look at all the things this area has going for it, there are already a lot of really exciting things happening," Schauf said. "We would be remiss to not take every opportunity that presents itself to become part of defining what we want our future region to look like."  

Gary Becker, executive director of the Local Government Institute, said the group's leaders were thrilled the three governmental units wanted to team up to talk about the future even though the Chippewa Valley already has a lot of positive things going on and is ahead of the curve in terms of intergovernmental collaboration.

Taxpayers should be happy too, Becker said, because cooperation often leads to greater efficiency  and thus saves tax dollars.

An important aspect of the process involves discussing potential potholes on the road to the future and how to avoid them.

"It's really important to establish a vision that's resilient in the face of adversity," Becker said.  

Input sought

The project seeks to broaden its reach by using Polco, a free service that permits regional residents to offer anonymous input by answering online poll questions. Current questions ask users to describe possible unexpected changes that could negatively affect the Chippewa Valley's creative economy and to identify social, political, environmental, economic and technological trends most likely to have a large impact on the region in 20 years.

The Wisconsin-based system, which incorporates tools that allow local governments to verify what community a respondent lives in without knowing the person's identity, enables people not inclined to attend city council or county board meetings to weigh in, Becker said.

Through the middle of last week, the Chippewa Valley project had received nearly 300 responses through Polco, Solinger said. 

By involving such a large group of people, both in person at workshops and online through Polco, community leaders hope to tap into what Schauf termed the area's "brilliance."

"We have a lot of really intelligent people in this community with a lot of good ideas, and being able to find ways to collect those ideas and make use of them is a very positive thing," she said.

Local officials expressed optimism that the project will help ensure that the Chippewa Valley's future will be as bright as the one envisioned by participants.

"I think it's a great opportunity for everybody to think a little proactively and strategically," Solinger said. "Not just about what we're doing now, but about what we can be doing  ... to ensure the creative economy continues to be the draw that it is here."

Contact: 715-833-9209, eric.lindquist@ecpc.com, @ealscoop on Twitter

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