Strong sense of community vital to success

Larry G. Schank | Chancellor, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Published April 1, 1993  | April 1993 issue

In higher education a sense of community is considered essential if the university is to be successful. A community is one in which the members agree on a mission, share a common set of goals and embrace a vision for the future of the enterprise.

For a city to be successful, it must be a community in the same sense. In my opinion, Eau Claire is such a community and as a result has been able to respond to some major economic setbacks.

Building a community takes strong leadership, a high level of participation by individuals from all sectors of the city, and constant attention by these leaders to the need to form consensus on ways to address the needs of the city. In 1991 the city reinvigorated its economic development efforts by creating a new organization, the Eau Claire Area Industrial Development Corp. (ECAIDC), with the mission "to create and maintain quality job opportunities in the Eau Claire area."

The formation of the ECAIDC was a key to invigorating the sense of community. With broad-based representation on the board of directors from education, city and county government, business, and service organizations, the ECAIDC serves as a symbol to citizens and prospective businesses that the community is committed to economic growth and stability. Equally important, the ECAIDC serves as a vehicle for sustaining and communicating the city's shared agenda for the present and the future.

In fact, it is the high level of agreement on this agenda that makes the Eau Claire community so strong. For example, we have very high standards and expectations for the quality of life in the Chippewa Valley. We support an excellent educational system in the schools, technical college and university. We appreciate and work to maintain the beauty of the natural environment, which gives the city part of its unique character.

When people feel that they are part of a community, that others share their concerns about economic need and that others care about their economic future, they are better able to handle difficulties like the Uniroyal plant closing. While the loss of this major manufacturer had a significant impact on the city, the community rallied to the support of those affected, and the strength of the community has carried us successfully through the time of crisis.

Another important factor in Eau Claire's ability to respond to economic problems is the city's recognition of itself as an integral part of the Chippewa Valley area, as a partner with other smaller communities. Among the groups established to foster cooperation within the region is Momentum 21, an organization created to develop a coordinated economic development effort for the greater Eau Claire area.

Sponsored by the Greater Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, the Eau Claire County Industrial Development Corp. and the Eau Claire Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Momentum 21 board of directors, like the ECAIDC, has representatives from government, education and business. Momentum 21 has provided an important framework for increasing participation in economic development efforts, which has enhanced cooperation among all of the communities involved.

Maintaining a shared vision takes vigilance and hard work. In any viable community, the vision will have its detractors. In Eau Claire the attempts by a few to narrow the vision and the city's prospects for the future have only served to strengthen the leadership and increase participation in community activities and the political process.

In a 1989 article in Kettering Review, John Gardner says that "in vital communities cooperation, compromise, and consensus-building will be widely shared pursuits. ... We know that where community exists it confers upon its members identity, a sense of belonging, and a measure of security." Because it is a community in Gardner's sense, Eau Claire is well-positioned to respond to both the opportunities and the challenges of the future.