RACINE COUNTY — Now, the real work begins.
For three consecutive Wednesdays in June, the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread brought together some 120 community leaders from across eastern Racine County. Its initiative, called Resilient Communities, aims to unite the seven communities east of Interstate 94 to mull the future of the region and foster more cooperation.
Outside experts who spoke on those Wednesdays aimed to jump-start discussions within the group — and officials say that’s exactly what has happened over the last several weeks.
At the same time, they acknowledge that a core challenge facing eastern Racine County — how to balance each municipality’s own interests with those of the larger region — won’t be solved overnight.
“The unfortunate reality is people are very guarded and protective about their small pockets of community,” Racine Alderman Jason Meekma said. “It’s hard for people to get comfortable enough to reach out. This was a great first step. But if you were listening in on some of the comments even during the discussions, you got a sense of a little bit of that resistance to collaborate and partner.”
Participants of the series praised the Johnson Foundation for starting conversations between those within the City of Racine and outlying communities.
Since the speaker series wrapped up June 28 at Wingspread, 33 E. Four Mile Road, the foundation has continued meeting with participants, including a meeting with elected officials from several eastern Racine County municipalities, said Ashley Staeck, the foundation’s program officer.
“I want to commend the elected leaders for really being open and willing to talk to each other,” Staeck said.
“A lot of it right now is just the exploration phase and thinking about what the possibilities are, and just kind of going from there in terms of what’s feasible and what additional information would be needed.”
Shared services examined
Some of those possibilities floated in the immediate aftermath of the series included more sharing of services — fire, garbage pickup and the like — between municipalities.
Communities already share services in some areas, Sturtevant Village President Jayme Hoffman, noting the South Shore Fire Department in Sturtevant and Mount Pleasant and the county dispatch center that serves all of the county except the City of Burlington.
But the politics involved in additional consolidation can’t be ignored, he said.
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“We can all agree today and say ‘We’re all going to combine our services.’ But as we all know, there’s elections every April,” Hoffman said.
“The hardest part of this whole process is, yes we want to do this, but what are your future boards going to vote for in the future?”
Other factors, such as existing contracts with unions or other entities, also must be taken into consideration, said Mount Pleasant Trustee John Hewitt, who attended the series.
Hewitt agreed that more cooperation between municipalities would help the region as a whole. A big development project in one community, for example, would provide job opportunities for residents throughout the region, he said.
Dennis Wiser, who will serve as Racine mayor until a special election later this year, said using the resources each community has now is as important as possible collaboration in the future.
“There’s a lot of places where collaboration is a possibility and I think the communities will all come out ahead on it,” Wiser added.
A primary goal of the series was for people who did not know each other to be introduced and arrange meetings outside of Wingspread. That was one goal accomplished, participants said.
“I’m a breakfast meeting person. I always have been my whole career,” South Shore Fire Chief Robert Stedman said. “So, I’ve had a couple meetings with people, and just meeting people I didn’t know before ... I think everyone has a vision that things for the region will start moving forward.”
A group of Racine-area young professionals have been among those meeting, said Meekma, who said he hopes leaders consider a multi-generational approach in future decision-making.
Meekma added that in addition to a practical impact on services, more cooperation could also offer a psychological boost to the entire region.
“If we were all one united community, we’d have a lot more people that are very proud of their community. Right now, Mount Pleasant is not proud of Racine, and Racine doesn’t worry about what Mount Pleasant’s doing,” he said. “But if we’re all one community, we could all be proud of all of our accomplishments. There would be a unified sense of pride instead of ‘Well we’re better than them because we did this.’”