During the past 14 years Wisconsin Rural Partners Inc. has recognized many of Wisconsin's outstanding Rural Development Initiatives.
The program is designed to identify, highlight and share innovative models, practices and programs that have a positive affect on rural Wisconsin communities, according to WRP President Dennis Deery. "The program was created to provide a mechanism for rural communities to learn from each other," he said.
During a special ceremony at this year's Rural Summit, held May 2, awards were presented to the top Rural Development Initiatives for 2014.
The judging panel had a difficult time narrowing the list down to the top seven, acknowledged Ricky Rolfsmeyer, WRP treasurer. "We had 29 excellent nominations from throughout the state," he said, "and if we had the money, we'd have given out 29 awards."
The seven initiatives receiving awards follow.
Bayfield Regional Food Producers Cooperative: The Bayfield Regional Food Producers Cooperative was founded in 2010 by 12 people who identified a need to collaborate and market farm products together as partners rather than competitors.
The FPC has grown to 22 farm and business members with products including beef, fish, poultry, pork, lamb, vegetables, coffee, cheese, bakery, flour, lacto-fermented foods, fruit and spritzer.
The FPC has developed a very successful community supported agriculture program that stretches from Ashland to Duluth, MN. A recently implemented wholesale program now distributes member products from Ashland to as far south as Stevens Point and Eau Claire and west to Duluth.
Each year the FPC hosts a summer BBQ event and a fall Harvest Trail Dinner, both featuring food products from co-op members.
Door County Transportation Consortium: When it began in 2007, the consortium's first task was to implement a referral phone and web system to provide information to residents on various transportation options available to them and to discover unmet needs.
The consortium also worked with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay to conduct a countywide transportation survey.
Questions focused on people's transportation needs and their interest in using various types of public transit. The survey indicated that affordability was the largest barrier to accessing current transportation options.
To overcome the lack of affordability, a 42-member consortium then launched Door-Tran, which became a 501(c)(3) organization in November 2009.
Door-Tran obtained grant funding and launched a travel voucher program which allowed eligible residents to purchase vouchers for half-price rides through local for-profit taxi companies, the Washington Island Community van and the Washington Island Ferry. Door-Tran has subsidized over 20,000 trips.
Meadow Park Estates Reclamation: Meadow Park Estates subdivision comprises 60 construction-ready lots in the village of Rockland created at the height of the housing boom.
The project never took off, and the developer skipped town losing only his deposit. The village was facing debt service on the improvement financing and no additional revenue to pay it.
A number of critical and beneficial public and private partnerships were harnessed to revive the dormant development and create 14 units of housing resulting in an increase of $2 million to the tax base and housing for 50 new residents, which is more than 8 percent growth for the small village.
La Crosse County assisted the village by creating the county's first ever joint county-village tax-incremental financing district. The State of Wisconsin participated with grants and loans, and The Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago provided down payment assistance.
Other communities can benefit by realizing that problems can be solved if done cooperatively.
Food Enterprise Center: The Food Enterprise Center in Viroqua offers unique opportunities for food entrepreneurs and social investors by providing infrastructure for innovative food-and-wellness and exercise-related businesses to start and expand.
Sue Noble, the Vernon County's Economic Development Corporation director, devised the project, and in July 2009, the Vernon Economic Development Association acquired a vacant 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility.
Soon it established a multi-tenant aggregation, storage, processing and distribution center to expand business capacity, increase revenue for area producers and create food cluster industry jobs in the Vernon County region and beyond.
The center welcomed its first tenant in 2010 and today houses more than 10 food-and-wellness-related businesses that employ at least 45 people.
Approximately 35,000 square feet of space has been developed for local food and wellness companies to co-exist and grow their business. Approximately 40,000 square feet of space is still available in the facility.
Lac Courte Oreilles Sustainable Agriculture Research Station: The Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College, established in 1982, operates a Sustainable Agriculture Research Station near Hayward.
Located on a 220-acre farm with 75 acres tillable, it has provided a variety of educational programs to almost 400 people in the area by offering workshops on composting and building solar dehydrators.
It has also provided hands-on experience in sustainable farming practices. Its programs cover sustainable local food production, backyard chickens, food preservation, canning and cooking.
The station also provides educational opportunities in sustainable agriculture and food preservation and offers programs such as Renewable Energy Sustainable Development, Community Supported Agriculture and the LCO Farmers Market.
A mobile farmers' market was designed to increase access to fresh produce grown at LSARS and serves as an educational booth at area pow-wows, fairs and festivals.
Village of Waunakee Creative Economy Initiative: Over the past 20 years, the Village of Waunakee's population has doubled to 12,000, bringing with it increased economic opportunity.
The village administration and economic development commission are pursuing economic growth and development utilizing a diverse approach that includes business attraction and retention, tourism and more.
They established the Creative Economy Task Force early in 2011 that led to the formation of Waunakee's Creative Economy Initiative, which concentrated on discovering the creativity, artistry and innovation already existing in the village.
In its first year, CEI and numerous project partners concentrated on completing a local asset inventory. Subsequent work resulted in the annual Imagination Celebration in 2012 and 2013, an event meant to connect people through creativity that was attended by over 1,200 people each year.
W3: Working for Whitewater's Wellness: Working for Whitewater's Wellness (W3) was established in 2010 with the goal of creating a community-based wellness coalition.
The coalition's main partners include the Whitewater Unified School District, the city of Whitewater, Fort HealthCare and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which have the capacity to significantly improve the quality of life for those who live and work in the greater Whitewater area.
The coalition strives to provide free opportunities and resources that promote a balance of eating wisely, moving naturally, having a positive outlook and strengthening relationships. W3 formed a number of committees to address the wellness needs on both the individual and environmental levels to effect sustainable improvements that reach more people.
In four years, the coalition has launched or supported a number of effective initiatives, designed to make sure that residents of Whitewater live happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives. Over 88 percent of the residents surveyed have said that they are more knowledgeable about how to live healthy lives because of W3 programming.
Wisconsin Rural Partners is a statewide nonprofit organization that develops rural networks and leaders and provides a voice for rural Wisconsin.