WIND POINT — As the final speaker in a series mulling the region's future, Rebecca Ryan took about 120 community leaders on a choose-your-own adventure on Wednesday at the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread.
She was fairly forthright about the reasons for doing so.
"There seems to be a fair amount of concern about our local communities’ future," said Ryan, founder of Madison-based Next Generation Consulting. "If present trends continue — if we continue to do in the future what we’ve been doing in the past — it’s not going to look cute."
Ryan spoke as part of the Johnson Foundation's Resilient Communities initiative, which is bringing together all eastern Racine County communities — Caledonia, Elmwood Park, Mount Pleasant, North Bay, Racine, Sturtevant and Wind Point.
As officials try to overcome municipal boundaries to address broader challenges in the area, Ryan implored the group to collaborate more with each other, to have a sense of urgency, to embrace change.
Results of audience poll questions taken showed different perspectives and paths forward on local issues, like the proposed Racine event center or installing water and sewer infrastructure in areas near Interstate 94. Ryan urged community leaders to think about hot-button issues not just by their immediate ramifications, but second- and third-wave implications.
"Resilient communities have visionary, cross-sector leaders who aren't afraid of change," she said. "Their vision is stronger than the resistance."
Ryan also touted millennial-era leaders and residents, particularly those active in Racine, and their role in the community.
"This is a generation that believes they can do anything, and they engage around that and they do it in a team," Ryan said. "The millennials are right on time, in my opinion, and we would be wise to support, and in some cases, even follow their lead."
'New energy building'
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Ryan, who has been a featured speaker in Racine County before and is familiar with the area, said in an interview she has noticed community leaders become more protectionist over the years.
But that may be changing, she said, perhaps because of generational change or people simply becoming tired of that mindset.
"I do feel like there is a new energy building in this community to say, 'We can't continue to operate that way anymore,'" Ryan said.
Ryan's appearance Wednesday wrapped up the three-part speaker series at Wingspread, 33 E. Four Mile Road. The series also included Katie Foster, University of Maine-Farmington president and expert in local government and regional decision making, and Rob Henken, president of the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum.
The series is the first step to begin "a new kind of dialogue" on the future of Racine-area communities, said Ashley Staeck, program officer at the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread. Officials will next meet one on one with community groups and governing bodies.
Ryan said she has never seen an endeavor quite like this in other communities. Many will bring in a speaker from time to time, she said, but the foundation's approach is a much more sustained effort.
The question, though, is how to generate that interest into action, Ryan said.
"It's hard for me to predict how this is going to go," Ryan said. "I have seen communities where a single action sets off a chain reaction of other things, for the better or the worse.
"My sense about Racine, though, is that this is going to be a slow burn. That this is going to take several years to kind of acculturate to what is possible, not just to what has always been."