Posts Categorized: Places

Glamping: Eclectic Escapes in the Driftless

Bending River Cove photo by Kassidy Renee Paige / kassidyreneepaige.com

 

Ever wanted to spend the night in a silo? Get closer to nature, but not so close that you’re actually sleeping on the ground? Or maybe you’d like to see what tiny homes are all about?

These days, there are more options than ever for overnight stays in the Driftless – from amazing hotels to B&Bs to glamping-esque experiences (like the aforementioned silo). We caught up with three Driftless locals who have worked hard to reclaim materials, buildings, and properties, bringing new life to forgotten pieces of history, and, ultimately, creating fun and innovative spaces for guests to lay their heads for the night (or longer!).

The Driftless Region is a unique mix of landscapes and ecosystems, artists and farmers, cheese shops and pizza farms all living and existing in harmony – so get out there and explore all there is to offer! The adventure lies in the journey, AND the destination.


Not your average roadhouse

At The Chocolate Escape overlooking the Mississippi River in Wabasha, a group of third graders sit outside, licking their dripping chocolate and vanilla ice cream cones. They hoot and holler when an eagle flies overhead. At another table, a couple enjoys a cup of coffee. And, across the street at the local pub, a group of bikers clad in leather jackets, black boots, and sunglasses drink a cold brew. Time seems to stand still as three unlikely troops congregate contently on Main Street. Such is the vibe in towns along the Mississippi River.

As you head north out of town onto Highway 61, the sweeping green valleys and rolling bluffs overlook the wild yet graceful river. And there, perched on the side of the highway, sits a handful of tiny homes, campers, and cabins. Welcome to Bending River Cove, a resort with a cottage and five tiny homes, founded in 2017 by co-owners Mike Burke and Denay Kelly.

Bending River Cove

Bending River Cove photo by Kassidy Renee Paige / kassidyreneepaige.com

Mike is a treasure hunter in overalls. He – along with four friends – manage Barndoogle Productions. They travel through small towns across Southern Minnesota “barndoogling” – their word for finding treasures and history in old barns and buildings.

“All barns have a story,” he says. “And each one is unique. We believe it’s important to save and preserve not only the boards, but the stories too.”

Bending River Cove, barndoogling

Barndoogling / Photo courtesy Bending River Cove

When Mike was approached about crafting structures for a tiny home resort between Lake City and Wabasha using his reclaimed treasures, he jumped at the chance. It took Mike and business partner Denay Kelly two years to gather materials and build the tiny homes. But now, Bending River Cove is open for business, sitting just above Lake Pepin on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi.

The handcrafted tiny homes – between 200-400 square feet each – contain a kitchenette, a bathroom, a bedroom outfitted with luxury linens, and a fire pit outside.

“I use as many reclaimed boards and wood as I can,” Mike says. “With those materials, I find I can create intimate and cozy spaces.” Mike uses the term inglenook – a 17th century Scottish word that means chimney corner – to describe the feeling they’re going for at Bending River Cove. Before central heating, the fireplace was used for cooking, and the inglenook – or enclosing alcove – became a natural place for people to gather and stay warm. Looking at the river below while nestled on a comfy couch, with a mug of coffee in one hand and a book in the other, you catch a glimmer of that contentment.

“This area is near and dear to my heart,” Denay adds. “As a child, one of my favorite things to do was camp. Through these tiny homes, we’re trying to recreate that same experience.”

Sign at Bending River Cove

The sign at Bending River Cove / Photo courtesy Bending River Cove

Bending River Cover “tiny house nation”

Each tiny home is nestled between the bluffs of Southeast Minnesota and the breathtaking Lake Pepin. Nightly stays range between $75-175.

The Birch Studio. Sleeps 2. Includes twin daybed and trundle

Fat Bottom Girls. Sleeps 2. 1950s camper-turned-glamper

Homegrown Honey. Sleeps 6

Includes loft and lake-facing outdoor patio

Bohemian Rhapsody. Sleeps 4

Includes private bedroom and fire pit

No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem. Sleeps 4

Includes outdoor hot tub with lake views

River Queen. Sleeps 6

Includes two separate bedrooms and outdoor deck space

For more information, visit brctinyhomes.com or search Bending River Cove on airbnbn.com.


From pizza farm to glamping

Maren and Tom Beard have been busy. In 2013, they bought their 133-acre farm just outside of Decorah, now known as the beloved Luna Valley Farm. They hosted their wedding ceremony there in the valley, two years later. In 2017, they harnessed Tom’s skills as a farmer and chef and Maren’s passion for sustainable food systems and procurement (she’s an excellent chef, as well) and kicked off their pizza farm. Then, last year, the couple decided to introduce glamping. What’s that, you say? Glamping, AKA glamorous camping, is a way to experience nature with the added bonus of real beds and other plush offerings.

Glamping tent at Luna Valley Farm

A glamping tent at Luna Valley Farm / Photo courtesy Luna Valley Farm

At Luna Valley, the glamping happens in two 12 x 14’ canvas wall tents, which were once used at a Camp Tahigwa, a former Girl Scout camp located north of Decorah. For years Camp Tahigwa hosted groups of girls for week-long camps in the summer, some of which were in wall tents in the woods, overlooking the local trout stream. When the camp got sold a few years ago, Maren and Tom purchased a few of the tents with the dream of someday pitching them on their farm to welcome guests for a farm stay. “We have a passion for breathing new life into remnants of the past and doing what we can to repurpose things of deep history and profound beauty,” Maren writes on their Airbnb listing. “A local Amish tarp repair shop helped us fix up the tents and they have found a new life on our farm, where we hope they will be enjoyed for many years to come.”

The tents are situated in a beautiful oak savanna and feature king-sized beds, whimsical lanterns, rough-sawn hardwood floors, and spaces to read, write, and relax. Set up on a platform that extends into a deck, each tent offers a stunning view of the farm.

“This is a chance for people to unplug, connect with the land, and spend time on a working farm,” Maren says. In addition to pizza and glamping, Luna Valley grows organic crops, and graze sheep and cattle on pasture. “There’s something magical about waking up in the woods in a comfortable bed. It’s so quiet and peaceful.”

In the morning, down at the barn – a three to four-minute walk from the tents – glampers will find local coffee waiting for them, plus lovely bathrooms and a luxurious shower (with room for two). You can even add on glamping extras – mason jar mimosas, anyone? The barn also houses Maren and Tom’s commercial kitchen and pizza oven. Bonus for glampers: On Friday nights, you can take your Luna Valley wood-fired pizza up to your own private patio.

Glamping tents and renovated showers at Luna Valley Farm

Glamping tents in the Oak Savannah at Luna Valley Farm & the renovated showers in the Luna Valley barn / Photos courtesy Luna Valley Farm

Tents are available on Friday and Saturday nights throughout the summer. $150/night, 2 night minimum

Pizza nights: Fridays, 4-8 pm • April – October

For more information, visit lunavalleyfarm.com


Reconstructing history

Five miles north of Decorah, you’ll find a barn silo and a 1973 train caboose, both lovingly restored by Jim Dotzenrod, a Decorah native who proudly welcomes visitors to his land – and the region.

“We are super laid back and friendly up here on The Ridge!” Jim writes in his Airbnb profile. “I grew up in this area and know lots of folks, so no matter your interests, I’d be happy to help you find what you’re looking for during your stay with us.”

CR Train Caboose

The CR Train Caboose / Photos courtesy Silo on the Ridge & CR Train Caboose

Jim says lots of his renters come from the Twin Cities looking for something different.

“They don’t want to stay in town. They’d rather enjoy an experience,” he says. “And out here, they can pet the horses in the pasture, pick raspberries and apples, and watch the sunset.”

The silo came first. Jim – with the help of his brother – restored the structure, adding a roof and building bunk beds and a bathroom on the second level. They even incorporated a grapevine that was originally wrapped around the outside of the silo – the horses had chewed it off, so it was fair game. It now acts as the handrail leading upstairs to the sleeping area. A sofa and kitchen space fill the main level, and a large deck wraps around the entire structure.

Silo on the Ridge, petting horses, picking raspberries, and grapevine handrail

Two above – the Silo on the Ridge & that grapevine handrail / Photos courtesy Silo on the Ridge & CR Train Caboose

After seeing the silo book up frequently, Jim decided it was time for another reno project. That’s when he found the CR Station train caboose — one of the last of its kind, according to Jim — sitting on a set of railroad tracks at a local recycling center. Although a carpenter by trade, Jim wasn’t set up for the ironwork inside. But, with the right tools and help from his daughter, the two of them went for it, gutting the train car – repurposing the original conductor chairs and handrails in the front room, and fitting a queen bed and bunkbeds in the loft. The main level holds the kitchen and bathroom. With help from a crane and semi, the 52,000-pound train car now sits 200 feet away from the silo.

Prices range from $75-$121/night. For more information, visit airbnb.com and search Silo on the Ridge and CR Station Train Caboose.


When Maggie Sonnek isn’t spending the night at unique and cozy destination properties like these, she can be found sipping an iced coffee with her husband, watching their three kids play with Max the puppy.


Looking for more out-of-the-norm spots to spend the night? Add these to your list:

Little House on the Farm & The Guest Barn – Postville, Iowa

The Little House on the Farm – a 750 square-foot cabin located outside of Decorah – was built in 2009 on the foundation of an old barn that was once located on owners Donna and Dave Dull’s farm. The cabin has the look and feel of an authentic pioneer cabin, but with modern touches. The Guest Barn was built in 2012 with materials salvaged from a nearby barn and corncrib. The pieces were used to build a smaller 700 square-foot “new” barn. The space is cozy, but open, with exposed original barn beams and high ceilings for an authentic, yet modern farm stay. www.littlehouseonthefarm.com


Elkader Jail House Inn – Elkader, Iowa

Hosts Julie Carlisle-Kane and Dr. Tim Kane have transformed the old Clayton County Jail – located in Elkader Iowa, and originally built in 1870 – into three spacious suites. Nothing like a jail cell, these suites are beautifully renovated and outfitted with luxurious beds and baths, while still retaining the historic character of the stately old limestone building.

Guest can hang out in the “cell block” – a public space that was once actually the cell block of the jail. These days you can play a game of shuffle board, watch TV, or just relax there! www.elkaderjailhouseinn.com


Trout River Log Cabin – Decorah, Iowa

The Trout River Log Cabin was built in the mid 19th century as a Norwegian-Lutheran parochial school, then taken apart in 1898, moved across a field, and rebuilt as Norwegian immigrant Peter Losen’s home. Then, Decorah residents Paul Cutting and partner, Nathan Thompson, come into possession of the cabin. They stripped it to the logs, numbered everything, and once again moved it – to its new location on the Cutting family farm seven miles from downtown Decorah, perched on a bluff overlooking Trout River valley. It took three years to piece the house back together, and the results are stunning. The cabin is small, simple, and beautiful, with everything you need to make your stay comfortable and relaxing. www.troutriverlogcabin.com


Historic Tobacco Warehouse – Viroqua, Wisconsin

The Northern Wisconsin Co-op Tobacco Pool warehouse – listed on the local, state, and national registries of historic places– is one of the most unique and recognizable buildings in Viroqua. The owners, Valorie Schaefer and Richard Bock, bought it in 2008, and have been slowly renovating it to include their family home, several offices, a photo studio, and now a private guest suite that folks can rent through Airbnb. And that only fills about half of the 24,000 square-foot building! To book, search “Guest Suite in Historic Warehouse” on Airbnb.


Trempealeau Hotel – Trempealeau, Wisconsin

Directly above the Trempealeau Hotel bar and restaurant are eight historic sleeping rooms. Take a step back in time – there’s no TV or air conditioning, but each quaint room has a comfy bed, dresser, chair, and window. Two restrooms with showers are shared with the other lodgers. There is live music most Thursdays and Saturdays and many days in between, so if you need a quieter experience, you may want to book one of the other Trempealeau Hotel lodging options (suites available!) or choose a night without music. Book ahead of time for Reggae Fest, Cajun Fest, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Catfish Days, Labor Day and all weekends in October. www.trempealeauhotel.com


 

A Storied Summer: Driftless Theatre

Heartbreak House, 2018. Photo by Liz Lauren. / Courtesy American Players Theatre

Everybody loves a good story – from tall tales to fairy tales to ghost stories around the campfire to a stage full of actors, performing the scripts of Shakespeare (and others!). Stories transport us, remind us of our history – our joy and our sorrow – and bring us together for a fleeting bit of magic. Add to your summer story by checking out one – or all – of these fun theatres and story-telling events across the Driftless this year.


American Players Theatre – Spring Green, Wisconsin

The scene is set: You’ve got great friends, snacks, and a sense of anticipation along as you head off to the beautiful American Players Theatre (APT) in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Get there early to enjoy your pre-show picnic and the ambiance of the outdoor amphitheater, with sounds of whippoorwills and cicada floating through the air. And then, find your spot – the show is about to begin.

American Players Theatre

Photos by Kelsi Wermuth / Courtesy APT

“Nature definitely plays an active role in our outdoor theater,” says Jess Amend, APT’s Marketing Content Manager, explaining the charm of the Hill Theatre, where the outdoor APT plays are staged. “Most of the performances start around dusk, so you get to watch the world transform as the play goes on. It’s really a full sensory experience – the breeze blows, and the stars and moon come out, and they’re the same stars and moon that Shakespeare’s plays have always been performed under.”

With a backdrop like this, it’s no wonder playgoers love APT. Not only it is a great excuse for a relaxing night out, but the elements of nature – like the occasional pigeon landing on stage – also ensure each experience will be unique. “It all adds dimension to the plays we produce here, and it’s a pretty spectacular way to spend an evening.”

American Players Theatre's outdoor amphitheater, Hill Theatre

Photo by Mike McDermott / Courtesy APT

The storytelling in this setting is what truly makes the Theatre a must-see Driftless destination. “APT’s mission includes digging into really dense, poetic language. And that can be hard – for the actors and the audience – if you don’t do it right,” Jess says. This is why APT has a dedicated voice and text department – one of the strongest in the country – that helps bring stories to life in ways many have never seen before. “We often have audience members tell us that they never understood Shakespeare until they saw it at APT,” says Jess. That, in combination with the chemistry and ease on stage of the actors, makes once-complicated, hard-to-interpret stories feel more digestible, Jess says. “People tell us these actors feel like family, and that’s a powerful thing, and a powerful element to add to any story.”

In addition to the newly renovated 1089-seat outdoor amphitheater, Hill Theatre, there’s the 201-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre. Mark your calendars to the APT 40th Anniversary party on July 21 featuring a first-ever arts installation.

American Players Theatre’s 2019 season’s plays (both indoor and out) are:

Twelfth Night and Macbeth, both by William Shakespeare

She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith

August Wilson’s Fences by August Wilson

The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson

The Man of Destiny by George Bernard Shaw (indoors)

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur by Tennesee Williams (indoors)

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (indoors)

A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath (indoors)

See more info and buy tickets at americanplayers.org


Great River Shakespeare Festival – Winona, Minnesota

At the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) in Winona, Minnesota, they spend a lot of time investigating what is at the core of the story and the characters – translating the works of Shakespeare in new and exciting ways is both challenging and rewarding. “Things like jealousy, love, and ambition are timeless, and there are always new ways to examine how those things affect us,” says Eileen Moeller, GRSF Marketing and Sales Director. “Keeping productions relevant is very important to our company.”

Great River Shakespeare Festival

Photo by Dan Norman / Courtesy GRSF

This year’s production of Macbeth is a great example of how GRSF stays true to the core story and script, but also dips its toe into something new. Their website even suggests you should bring along a “Game of Thrones fan looking to take their fandom to another level” to enjoy the show. “Macbeth is a popular play because it’s dark and broody, but it also deals with ambition and power,” says Eileen. “It’s one that offers a lot to a lot of different people – famous lines for Shakespeare geeks and lots of swords and (fake) blood for those who like action.”

The stories, the costumes, and the set design are all top-notch at GRSF, but, like APT, it’s the atmosphere of community that keeps both audience and company coming back year after year. They’re expecting about 11,000 attendees for this year’s event. “If you’re not from town, you feel like you belong, and if you live in Winona, it’s like seeing old friends,” Eileen says. “For those of us in the company, it’s a combination of a family reunion and summer camp.”

“It’s a community,” she adds. “We want to tell stories together and discuss with our friends and neighbors what they mean for us, in this moment.”

Great River Shakespeare Festival

Photo by Dan Norman / Courtesy GRSF

This year’s Great River Shakespeare Festival – it’s 16th Season! – includes these plays:

Cymbeline

Macbeth

No Child…

The Servant of Two Masters

White Rabbit Red Rabbit

Love’s Labors Lost (Apprentice/Intern Production)

Mark your calendars: GRSF runs now through early August. New this year are two off-site performances at Forager Brewery in Rochester (July 11) and Pearl Street Brewery in La Crosse (July 14). Learn more and buy tickets at grsf.org.

Noteworthy: There are many opportunities for kids to get involved in GRSF through classes, like Shakespeare for: Young Actors; Young Designers;  Young Filmmakers and more. Find details at grsf.org.


Commonweal Theatre – Lanesboro, Minnesota

Lanesboro, Minnesota, is a charming little town that packs a punch, with outstanding recreational activities, exquisite art experiences, and beautiful Victorian houses. And one of the big pieces at the heart of Lanesboro is the Commonweal Theatre, an intimate theater with 30 years of experience under its belt. Executive Director Hal Cropp works hard alongside staff and crew to ensure that playgoers have the same, enjoyable experience at their shows that they do in the surrounding community. The ensemble of folks at the Theatre rotate between different jobs – in addition to being actors on stage, they may also be ticket sellers one day, ticket takers the next, or work selling concessions another. This allows theatre-goers to interact with the company on a more personal, face-to-face level. “It works with both the intimacy of the theater itself and the unique style of the public spaces – all of which are a permanent art display,” Hal says. “And deepens the audience feeling that we are ‘their’ theater.” Passionate storytelling is at the core of the Commonweal company, and this is what brings attendees back for more.

2018 production of The Clean House at Commonweal Theatre

Colleen Barrett (left) and Fernanda Badeo in the 2018 production of The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl. Photo by Peterson Creative Photography & Design / Courtesy Commonweal Theatre

Production selections start with “passion pieces” presented by members of the ensemble. “This generally yields a list of 40 or 50 titles, which then get sorted through for a number of variables: cast size, technical requirements, as well as how it fits against the other titles being offered,” Hal explains. “We are deeply cognizant of our mission to enrich the common good.” Even after 30 years, each production is a new experience at the Commonweal. The company is dedicated to the philosophy of making each person feel like the theatre is their home, and ultimately, feel connected to each story. “The satisfaction we derive from having people connect on so many levels is spiritually fulfilling, and therefore fun,” Hal says. “Passionate storytelling, executed on a highly professional level, touches everyone.”

Commonweal Theatre

Commonweal Theatre. Photo by Katrina Myrah / Courtesy Commonweal Theatre

Commonweal’s 2019 Season runs from April-December.

Current and upcoming shows include:

Boeing Boeing by Marc Camoletti (May 10-Aug 31)

Peter and the Starcatcher by Rick Elice (July 12-Oct 26)

On the Verge by Eric Overmyer (Sept 6-Nov10)

Sanders Family Christmas by Connie Ray (Nov 15-Dec 22)

Find details and buy tickets at commonwealtheatre.org

Resident ensemble member and theatre patron at Commonweal Theatre

Brandt Roberts (left), resident ensemble member, and a theatre patron / Courtesy Commonweal Theatre


Looking for more storytelling fun?

La Crosse Storytelling Festival – La Crosse, Wisconsin

Love a good scary story? Then the La Crosse Storytelling Festival in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is for you! This two-day event kicks off on a Friday night with a gentle first act, perfect for youngsters or the faint-of-heart. Then, the fear gets for real after intermission. “Humans have listened to scary tales for centuries as both cautionary tales and fun experiences. We hope to address the fun, but scary, experience,” says Professional Storyteller, Terry Visger. The festival ups the fun by serving witches brew with costume-clad emcees – appealing to young and old. “This has been a very popular event for children of all ages but, in the last two years, we have actually had more adults than children in attendance,” Terry says.

Day two brings tales of a tamer variety. Musicians, jugglers, and storytellers unite to provide an exciting family-friendly experience. “Storytelling is magical for children. It engages all of their brain and physical being. We choose musicians who know how to interact with children by making them part of the performance,” Terry says.

For adults, the talent and variety of internationally-known storytellers can’t be beat. “We strive for variety in style, content, and type of story. We believe our audiences should experience the best-of-the-best and that is why we bring tellers from many areas and backgrounds to La Crosse,” she says.

After 16 years of hosting this fun-filled weekend under tents, this year’s festival will leave the mosquitoes and unpredictable weather behind for a new location: The Pump House Regional Arts Center. “We will have great food and drink, a silent auction, and bookstore,” Terry says. “And, more importantly, wonderful entertainment for the weekend.”

Mark Your Calendars: La Crosse Storytelling Festival – July 19-20. Learn more at lacrossestoryfest.com.

History Alive – Lanesboro, Minnesota

Loving that Lanesboro, Minnesota vibe? Mark your calendars for History Alive Lanesboro, “Pop-up Plays: Founding Lanesboro 1869,” coming this fall, September 21, 22, 28, and 29 at 1 and 3 pm each day.

History Alive presents stories of Lanesboro… in the streets of Lanesboro. The one and a half-hour walking tours take you to different play locations around town. Tours begin at Sons of Norway, 200 Parkway Avenue South, Lanesboro. Tickets are for sale at the door.

2019’s traveling plays celebrate Lanesboro’s 150th anniversary. Meet some of the town’s first residents, railroad builders, stonemasons, fresh off-the-boat Irish and Norwegians, Chief Winneshiek, area abolitionists, even snake oil salesmen through this storytelling event!

Mark Your Calendars: History Alive Lanesboro – September 21, 22, 28, and 29. See facebook.com/historyalivelanesboro/ for details.

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/