‘It’s hard to see the future with tears in your eyes.’ This Native American proverb poignantly characterized many of the residents of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin after the town’s largest employer was purchased by an international company and 500 jobs were lost, resulting in a 40 per cent reduction in employment. However, with support from the local community foundation and an innovative approach to training community leaders, anger and despondency has begun to turn into something more positive.
At a time of serious decline in the cranberry industry, the region’s second largest employer, the losses unleashed a range of emotions – anxiety, fear, anger, sadness – and exposed the community’s historical insularity and dependency. A belief that the Paper Company would always exist had lulled people into a false sense of security. The pain and grief were evident in increasingly hostile public debates, personal attacks on public leaders, distortion of facts, gossip and, in some instances, scapegoating. As one of the previous owners of the Paper Company said, ‘I can’t bear to read the headlines any more.’
Coming to terms with the need for transition
The Community Foundation of Greater South Wood County (CFGSWC) had been engaged in strategic planning when the community was hit with the news of the job losses; it subsequently received $9 million from the sale of company stock, and promises from previous donors for more in the future. Kelly Lucas, the foundation’s president and CEO, saw the economic turmoil and resulting crisis of community confidence as an opportunity to rebuild and revitalize the area. The community foundation was undergoing its own transition from a traditional focus on asset development and grantmaking to focusing on community leadership. The economic crisis created a sense of urgency for action – not action that was cosmetic or a quick fix, but responses that would strengthen the community and have long-lasting results. In response, the community foundation conducted citizen focus groups to determine the primary needs of residents, and found that the number one need was job creation.
‘Making … where unmaking reigns’