Making La Crosse a Promise

BY SARA WALTERS
PHOTOS BY DAHLI DURLEY PHOTOGRAPHY (unless otherwise noted)

When it comes to revitalizing a neighborhood, a fresh coat of paint is a great start.

But what La Crosse Promise has done goes much deeper than the surface. The goal of the area non-profit is to economically transform La Crosse, Wisconsin, through a program available to families that build, buy, or renovate in select neighborhoods deemed challenged by poverty, crime, and low property values.

The “promise” is one dedicated to the participants’ future – more specifically, their education – in the form of a scholarship. “We are investing in these neighborhoods by investing in people,” says Brian Liesinger, Executive Director of La Crosse Promise.

Dependents or adult learners can use up to $25,000 each – with a $50,000 Promise household maximum – at 2 or 4-year accredited colleges.

For Lissa Carlson, a self-employed single mother of two, that was too good to pass up. “I make no secret that I did it for the money,” she says with a laugh. “$50,000 will go a long way for my kids.”

It was in October 2016 that Lissa and her sons moved into their “Promise Home,” as they’re called, in the Powell-Poage-Hamilton neighborhood. Powell-Poage-Hamilton and Washburn are the two neighborhoods currently being served by La Crosse Promise – they were identified as declining rapidly due to deteriorating property, pockets of poverty and an uptick in crime in a thorough community assessment conducted in 2010 by the City of La Crosse and La Crosse County.

Declining neighborhoods resulted in depressed housing values, which led to a greater tax burden for homeowners across the city. Coupled with nearly half the land in La Crosse being tax exempt due to higher education institutions and public marshland, many people became frustrated with tax rates and sought newer housing and lower rates in the suburbs. The exodus continued to fuel a cycle of decline in housing on the south side.

“After reading the community assessment report, leadership from the City, County, School District, and area businesses really came together to imagine a collaborative program that would have a rapid impact, and La Crosse Promise was born,” Brian says. “Each of those groups remains heavily involved and represented on our board. The three higher education institutions in La Crosse are represented as well. So collaboration is really in our DNA.”

So with the help of the Promise program – and a tight housing marketing – these neighborhoods are seeing revitalization. There are now five Promise Homes on Lissa’s block alone. Residents are also deciding to build in areas that were previously void of new construction. “In the 15 years prior to the launch of our neighborhood program, only two private individuals chose to build homes in these two neighborhoods. From our launch in the fall of 2015 until now, we have 13 new homes with Promise families living in them, plus seven more Promise-eligible homes being built,” Brian says. “New homes have meant new taxable value added to the city. And that ripples out to nearby homes as we see the depressed housing values start to rise in Powell-Poage-Hamilton and Washburn, which improves not only other homeowners’ equity but again, raises the tax base.”


The beautification is obvious, and dramatic. “When we visit with the neighborhood associations and speak with long-standing members of the neighborhoods, they cannot believe the transformation in just a few short years,” Brian says. He attributes some of this to the “worst-to-best” approach that Promise takes, explaining that the dramatic transformation from a vacant lot or condemned home to a beautiful new build can be very inspiring.

Even more beneficial than the improved appearance is its impact on the use of the homes. “The ‘worst of the worst’ are homes known for significant criminal activity. We know of two Promise homes that were former magnets for crime – specifically drugs. One of those homes was occupied by an individual dealing drugs as late as October of 2017. That home has since been condemned and razed and has been replaced with a new home,” Brian says. “Homes like that remaining in the neighborhood come at a high social cost. The value in replacing them is beyond dollars.”

La Crosse Promise definitely isn’t all about new building, though, or losing the character of these historic neighborhoods. In fact, the program encourages projects that preserve external historic characteristics and are appropriate to the architectural features of the area.

Renovation programs were a good way to let people who already live in the neighborhood take advantage of La Crosse Promise’s scholarships and invest in their own home at the same time. An owner who invests more than $30,000 becomes eligible for $25,000 in scholarships. Investing more than $60,000 raises the eligibility to $50,000.

What other stipulations exist for Promise applicants?

• The family must live in that house for at least four years, and they must continue to live in La Crosse until the youngest child receiving a scholarship graduates from high school.

• The oldest student who can benefit from this opportunity would need to reside in the new home prior to the beginning of 9th grade.

• Each La Crosse Promise Family is permitted a maximum lifetime scholarship amount of $50,000 to be distributed among dependents however the family chooses, providing that no one student receives more than $25,000.

One of the hopes of La Crosse Promise is that there will be a mix of household and incomes that highlights neighborhood diversity

Lissa especially appreciates this aspect of the program. “La Crosse is an amazing community, but it is pretty homogenous,” she says. “I like being part of a neighborhood that looks a bit more like the rest of the world. I like that my kids have friends of a wider variety of backgrounds.”

Another hope is to increase enrollment in public schools. The convenient location of these neighborhoods within the city helps make this more likely.

“My youngest is able to walk to school,” Lissa says. Brian agrees that the proximity to schools has been a motivating factor for many Promise families. Plus the neighborhoods are close to some of the city’s largest employers as well as a downtown full of shopping and recreation.

And as far as the crime and unrest that many associate with these areas? Lissa has little to report. Her only small hang-up has been the occasional language barrier. Safety has not been a concern, she says.

Perhaps the biggest hope is that these conveniently-located homes with $50,000 educational stipends – funded entirely by generous donors – will motivate community-minded folks – like it did Lissa – to sign up and take a chance on La Crosse Promise. “No other community in the nation, as far as I know, is tackling neighborhood revitalization in this way – by attaching education incentives to homes. And doing it in a way that involves a deep and long-standing collaboration between the city, county, school district, and area businesses and nonprofits,” Brian says.

He believes strongly that the educational component – the investment in people – is a big part of the program’s success, and beautification is the added bonus. “At first glance,” he says, “our neighborhood program looks like just a housing program. When in reality, it is just as much an education program. The Promise families, some who have very young kids and some who have kids who will soon enter college, will have their lives transformed through education – an education the Promise scholarships will help fund.”

As an added component, La Crosse Promise also runs Future Centers, an educational advising program in Logan and Central High Schools. The centers have dedicated advisors to help students get career and college ready, along with technical support for things like student aid applications.

Together, Promise Homes and Future Centers are providing a comprehensive solution. The future is bright for the program, its participants, and the city. The people-first approach has been working. “What makes great neighborhoods are great neighbors,” Brian says. “We need more than just new homes. We need civically-engaged, education-minded people to strengthen the neighborhoods, and who plan to stay.”

The positive changes are felt by the entire city of La Crosse. Promise is about a year ahead of its original projections, and they hope to soon spread the love to other struggling neighborhoods, and support even more La Crosse residents. “Two key areas that often have the greatest impact on an individual’s success are housing and education,” Brian says. “The dollars they will be able to invest in their education will serve them for the rest of their lives. That is a return on investment you cannot beat.”


Sara Walters is a writer and mom of two. Her girls love the awesome playground at Poage Park.


Learn more about La Crosse Promise:
lacrossepromise.org

Watch for Walking Tours of Promise Neighborhoods by liking La Crosse Promise on Facebook:
www.facebook.com/lacrossepromise/

Read Inspire(d) Spring 2019 Online!

The Spring 2019 Inspire(d) is all about planting the seeds of hope for the future!
Here’s what you’ll find:

Puentes/Bridges • La Crosse Promise • Folk Schools in the Driftless • Sum of Your Biz: Night Dive Swim • Q&A with Mollie B. • How to Make Friends as an Adult • Week of the Young Child • & More!

A note from Aryn:

I don’t know about you, but around this time of year (when I’m making the Spring Inspire(d), I suppose), I find myself thinking, “Thank freakin’ goodness; we’ve made it!” Spring!

Of course, there’s currently a blizzard outside. And there could be false spring or third winter or whatever we got last April (let’s hope not)! But I’ve got my fingers crossed for some spring-like weather, crocuses and daffodils, and open windows soon!

In the meantime, enjoy these pages of fun, positivity, and springtime vibes! We’re all about planting seeds of change with this Inspire(d). We hope to teach our kids empathy, kindness, and compassion, for starters, so that they can create a better future for themselves. This is one of the motivators behind Week of the Young Child, a national movement dedicated to spotlighting our youngest learners – learn more about local efforts in Sara Friedl-Putnam’s story on page 54.

In Maggie Sonnek’s piece about Puentes / Bridges, a Wisconsin non-profit that works to bridge the cultural gap between area farmers and their employees from Mexico, compassion and empathy are big components (pg. 34). It’s such a cool program!

Speaking of cool programs, you should definitely check out Sara Walters’ story on La Crosse Promise (pg. 58) – they offer a scholarship – up to $50,000 – to homeowners/buyers who are willing to invest in two challenged neighborhoods in La Crosse. It’s truly an innovative approach to neighborhood revitalization.

And we love the self-love that Heather Caye Brown promotes through her swimwear company, Night Dive Swim, and in this Spring’s Sum of Your Business. What better message to share with our kids than to Love Your Self?!

As for the literal seeds on the cover: You can use those for the Paper Earth Hearts Roxie and I made for this issue’s paper project (pg. 33)! We put them together on one of the many January snow days, and are thinking they’ll make great Earth Day presents for friends and neighbors this April.

Make sure not to miss Benji’s fun Q&A with polka music star Mollie B., my infographic, “How to Make Friends as an Adult” (it’s not as tricky as you think!), and a great line-up of fun events to cure your Spring Fever this year!

Thinking you need something a little more in-depth to get you out of the house? Consider signing up for a class at one of the great Folk Schools in the Driftless! Learn about offerings from Driftless Folk School, Eagle Bluff Skills School, and Vesterheim Folk Art School in Kristine Jepsen’s story on page 19.

We’ve got plenty more, too, to help keep you entertained until the snow melts and the seeds start sprouting!

Happy Spring, friends!

Looking forward,

Aryn Henning Nichols

Click here to read the Spring 2019 Inspire(d) online!

Earth Paper Seed Hearts

Looking for a fun way to celebrate Earth Day (April 22) and look forward to spring? Make these adorable earth paper seed hearts!

Supplies:

Silicone heart mold – you can also make round earths that you shape by hand if you don’t have a heart mold
Seeds – we used some I saved from last fall – mostly marigolds
Construction paper – we went with blue and green to look like earths, but you could use any colors you want
Bowls (as many as you have colors)
Sieve
Food Processor (a blender would probably work too)

First, rip the paper into bits. We used about 16 pieces of paper total (a few more blue than green since we have more water than land on earth) for the 24 earth hearts. Keep the colors in separate bowls to keep the colors separate when they go into the molds. Do a few extra pieces if you want to make some round earths too!

Fill the bowls with water to cover the paper – mush them a bit to get the paper bits separated.

Let soak for at least two hours – overnight works too!

Time for the food processor!

We found that less is better with this (I’d put a few less pieces of paper in the processor than the photo shows), and make sure to have about an inch of water at the bottom. If the processor is not happy, take some paper out and add a little more water!

It will look like this.

And then like this.

Then move the paper clumps to the sieve. Squeeze out as much water as you can!

Repeat with all your colors!

We found it got a little messy, but hopefully our mistakes can be your gains!

Once you’ve processed your paper and squished the water out, it’s time to put them in the molds! You can piece bits in to look like little earths like we did. Fill the mold to about half, and push in the center to make a little divot for the seeds. Put a few seeds in the divot. Try to keep the seeds away from the edges.

Next push paper bits on top of the seeds, paying attention to connect the edges to the bottom section especially.

Once you’ve covered all the seeds, press down on each heart with a paper towel to squeeze out even more water.

We dried these over a heat vent – they took a couple of days to be completely dry. Once they are dry, carefully pop them out of the molds. I had a couple fall apart, but most were good.

Gift them to friends on Earth Day or anyway to plant this spring!

P.S. Roxie also made a round earth with this project, putting seeds in the center the same way! See below for inspiration! Enjoy!