Belgium starts community revitalization effort

Pieces are in place, but success in the Wisconsin’s Connect Communities program requires time and money
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

 
If Belgium were to host more events, a farmers market, beer garden and music in the park rank as the most popular.

That was the consensus of about 20 businesspeople, officials and residents who participated in the Connect Communities program kickoff on March 13 at Village Hall.

Connect Communities is run by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. as a supplement to the Main Street program that works to support downtown redevelopment.

Belgium already has three of the biggest elements in place to attract and maintain a young population, according to a University of Wisconsin study on gaining and maintaining populations of 20 to 39-year-olds.

Darrin Wasniewski, downtown development program director with WEDC, said the study, which used census data from 2000 to 2010, found common traits in 14 communities that maintained or added young people. Among the traits were being located within 50 miles of a large population center, easy access to a highway and access to natural resources and trails for hiking and biking.

Belgium, Wasniewski pointed out, checks all three of those boxes.

The study found people were not looking for shopping, but they did want social experiences in their communities, such as special events or popular gathering spots, Wasniewski said. Schools were important as gathering places rather than education, he said.

“The common theme through all this is social,” Wasniewski said.

That mirrors results of a three-year national study called Soul of the Community done by Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Three elements people were looking for included communities that were aesthetically pleasing, access to social opportunities and opportunities for people to get involved in their communities.

In small-group discussions, favorite places in Belgium and social gathering opportunities were identified.

Besides the top three, a coffee shop, splash pad Sunday, food truck rally and astronomy event at the observatory at Harrington Beach State Park received more than one vote.

Tara Williams, marketing director for the Belgium Area Chamber of Commerce, said how this information will be used has not been decided.

Succeeding in the Connect Communities program will take time and money, said Tina Chitwood, regional economic development director with WEDC.

During a slideshow to introduce the program, Chitwood provided two success stories of similarly sized communities.

Cambridge, which has nearly 1,500 people, has been in the program since 2014. Its $1 million in public funds, $1.8 in private investment and 1,500 annual volunteer hours helped yield 21 new businesses and 26 new jobs.

Other Cambridge initiatives included launching a girls night out event and outdoor market, doing a branding and strategic planning initiative, establishing a building improvement program and hosting a business education series.

La Farge, with a population of more than 750, spent $750,000 in public funds and $1.5 million in private investment and used 3,800 volunteer hours to help net one new business and seven new jobs.

It also created a strategic plan, formed a revitalization organization, completed a streetscape enhancement project, built a riverfront park and disc golf course, started a farmers market and hosted a business planning event.

“It’s not the size of your community that’s a direct correlation to the impact you can make, but it’s your investment in volunteer hours as well as public and private investment,” Chitwood said.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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