RACINE COUNTY — Seven municipalities lie east of Interstate 94 in Racine County.
They have a lot in common. They also have their own interests and constituents to look out for.
A new initiative called Resilient Communities brings together all of those eastern Racine County communities — Caledonia, Elmwood Park, Mount Pleasant, North Bay, Racine, Sturtevant and Wind Point — to mull the future of the region.
Business leaders say the division of municipalities is often unhelpful, with cooperation sometimes lacking. They hope a three-part series, hosted by the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, jump-starts discussions about ways to work better together.
“You can’t just look out for yourself,” said Helen Johnson-Leipold, chief executive of Johnson Outdoors and chairwoman of the Johnson Financial Group and Wingspread boards. “I think until we can come together and work together, all of us, we are going to have a hard time.”
The Resilient Communities series begins Wednesday with a talk from Katie Foster, University of Maine-Farmington president and an expert in local government and regional decision making. Rob Henken, president of the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum, and Rebecca Ryan, founder of Next Generation Consulting, will speak on the following two Wednesdays.
Capacity crowds of more than 120 people, including representatives from all eastern Racine County municipalities, are expected at the events.
To Eric Olesen, the challenges Racine faces are nothing new.
The O&H Bakery owner, who has been active in the community for some 35 years, noted a contrast with Kenosha County. In recent years, as Kenosha County landed big new businesses — while Racine County often seemed to get passed over — the business community has tried to rally local government leaders to keep up with their neighbors, he said.
Olesen hopes a more unified vision among community leaders comes out of the events at Wingspread.
“Every community is challenged in one way or another by the same kinds of things,” Olesen said. “It’s the communities that find a way to overcome the challenges, to bridge the gaps, to find ways to work together to achieve what could be a singular, common goal.”
Discussions at Wingspread will allow officials to take a look at where the Racine region is now and how they can work together to move forward, said Matt Montemurro, president and chief executive officer of Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce.
“I would just really like to see everyone at the table having the discussions to see where we can be more efficient, where we can work together, where it makes sense,” he said. “I would anticipate all of the different communities to put things out there for discussion.”
In some ways, communities aren’t much different than businesses — they can’t work in “silos” and they have to always evolve, Johnson-Leipold said.
A thriving community is critical for businesses, Johnson-Leipold said. Her father and grandfather, both former leaders of SC Johnson, believed the company “can’t have a healthy environment inside the company if you don’t have a healthy environment outside the company,” she said.
What the Racine area needs is “cross-boundary, inspirational leadership” and a better understanding of the bigger picture, Johnson-Leipold said.
“This is not easy and certainly all you can hope for is headway and progress,” Johnson-Leipold said. “If we can get people talking to each other and aware of the big picture, that’s a huge step forward.”
The Journal Times is among those attending the series. Look for more coverage in upcoming Sunday issues.
"I think until we can come together and work together, all of us, we are going to have a hard time."
— Helen Johnson-Leipold, chief executive of Johnson Outdoors
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