Posts Tagged: community

Making La Crosse a Promise


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:

Watch for Walking Tours of Promise Neighborhoods by liking La Crosse Promise on Facebook:

Live Generously: Paul Lundquist

Paul Lundquist“I’ve always been a big believer in supporting good people doing good things,” says Winona radio personality, Paul Lundquist.

Paul landed in Winona, Minnesota, 10 years ago. At that time, he was hosting a morning radio show with “pretty much no promo budget,” and looking to grow its popularity. So he offered to host things around the community – pageants, contests, fundraising events – and served on area committees. He was “giving back” in every sense of the word, and as a bonus, networking, promoting his show, and meeting folks in the community.

“I had time and a unique set of skills: I’m able to stand in front of large groups of people and not really care,” he says of his total lack of stage fright. “I was broke – I never could cut big checks… but I still wanted to support cool things happening in Winona.”

Indeed, Winona, population 27,546, is home to a lot of cool things. From Midwest Music Fest to the Great River Shakespeare Festival to Boats and Bluegrass to Frozen River Film Festival…and that’s just a handful on the list.

“I love living in Winona – when you say you want to do something, people want to support it. They don’t say, ‘No way can that happen.’ They say, ‘Okay, how can we help?’ Paul says. “We have a small town, but we can do things, have things, have experiences because we support each other.”

In addition to acting as host for many local events, Paul volunteers for Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and Boy Scouts.

“I don’t necessarily agree with all their politics, but Boy Scouts sure had a huge influence on my life,” he says. “I attribute a lot of who I am to my amazing scoutmaster, Gene Klug.”

Paul grew up in Selby, South Dakota – a tiny town of 700 people. He spouts off the tenets of Boy Scouts without pause: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

“Gene taught me leadership, volunteerism… he taught me about appreciating not necessarily being the star all the time, but seeing pride in helping others,” he says.

Paul and his wife are expecting their first child in January 2016 – a son – and Paul hopes that one day he, too, will meet his own “Gene Klug.” In the meantime, “I’m going to help create a community I want my son to grow up in,” he says.

In addition to radio work, Paul is a realtor. One would think someone with two jobs is too busy, but he makes it work. His tips for doing the same? Working volunteering into your day job – i.e. networking your radio show while hosting an event – is a good place to start. But, most importantly: find something you like to do. “You’re not going to do it if you’re not passionate about it.”


“Just ask. Go up and say, ‘How’d you get into this?’ Go to the event. Say, ‘What can I do to help?’” he says. “There’s a volunteer opportunity for everyone. The local Humane Society here is looking for people to come in and play with kittens. You can literally volunteer your time to go play with kittens.”

“Another group is looking for people to volunteer two hours a week to deliver sandwiches to folks who can’t get out of the house. That’s bringing food – LIFE – to people. How cool is that?! Two hours a week.”

Continuing, it’s clear he has the passionate part down pat.

“You need to be one Gene Klug in a town of 700 people. Give one smart-mouthed kid a chance to make a difference. You don’t need to head up a big organization. You don’t need to cure a disease. Helping people can be as simple as bringing them a sandwich. Playing with kittens.” – by Aryn H. Nichols

You can volunteer

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Live Generously: Rachel & David Storlie

The StorliesOnce upon a time, in the nearby hamlet of Spring Grove, Minnesota, there came together two professional performers who loved each other – and musical theater – very much. Indeed, their life so relishes in the stage – its lights, its music, the passion of it all –that they themselves were married on one: in Steyer Opera House in Decorah.

Meet Rachel and David Storlie. If their names don’t ring bells, their performances should: one or both have appeared in nearly every recent show produced by Ye Olde Opera House in David’s hometown of Spring Grove – from Little Shop of Horrors to The Sound of Music. Rachel, a trained vocalist originally from Caledonia, Minnesota, wasn’t that surprised when David – who she says bares his full soul on stage – proposed to her in front of their tight-knit community… in the middle of a live production on Valentine’s Day 2009.

Today, their home on a shaded side-street in Spring Grove is virtually a set. Most of their furniture was acquired for one show or another, says David, an IT administrator at DECO Products in Decorah by day and a collector of old projectors, cameras, and vintage instruments off the clock. Rachel, for her part, maintains a private music studio and a wardrobe so character-driven that she could step out as a native to any era in history, from heels to hat (her favorite, acquired in a curiosity shop in London, features a taxidermied raven). “I dress as her for Halloween,” David says with a chuckle.

Such is the dedication that keeps them pouring 100 or more hours of volunteer energy into acting, directing, or managing aspects of each community theater production in Spring Grove, nurturing a special breed of community activist along the way, David says.

“It builds a core group of people who can get things done, like public events and fund-raisers. Actors can just jump into those situations and succeed. With theater, you just try out something, and if it doesn’t work, the next rehearsal/performance, you try something else. I trust the actors I work with on stage with my deepest emotions, and we overcome fears together. We are making ourselves into better people who work well with others.”

Rachel, a master’s candidate in opera performance at the University of Northern Iowa, agrees. “My studies are reaffirming one of life’s greatest lessons: active listening,” a skill she thinks is requisite for successful communication between actor and audience. “It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about everything from your perspective and your character. It doesn’t come as naturally to understand the thoughts and motivations of everyone around you – but I think those are awarenesses people value in small towns and that are bringing people back to live there.”

“Theater and music build a bridge between imagination and reality,” she concludes, “and I am so humbled to walk across that bridge in an intentional, meaningful way, with David by my side.” – by Kristine Jepsen

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