BY PAUL VAN AUKEN
As I previously noted in a column about the origins of this contest, one of the reasons I love Oshkosh is that if you have an idea about something that could make local life better, you can give it a try, and it just might work. The Creating a Stronger Community Contest (CSCC) is itself the result of taking such a shot; and its purpose is to encourage others to pursue their own good ideas.
Launched in 2011, the CSCC fielded 24 proposals in its first two rounds, from groups-in-the-making, student organizations, established local nonprofits, and individual people. They pitched a variety of ideas related to local food, the arts, youth voting, anti-poverty strategies, sustainability, bringing diverse groups together, and more. A screening committee representing CSCC sponsors ranked the applicants and chose three finalists the first year and five the second. All applicants, however, were invited to represent their project and network at promotional tables before and after the Earth Charter banquet, where I got to announce the groups that would square off at the finals event at Becket’s Center Court later in the week.
Roughly 75 to 100 turned out for the first two finals events, coming together to mingle and chat with the project representatives, eat Becket’s appetizers, hear an inspiring talk and reports from winners, and listen to each finalist’s five-minute pitch and some live music as they weighed their options. Most importantly, attendees were there to choose the winner; after making a nominal contribution ($5 or $10), they were able to vote for the project of their choice. These contributions were added to what we had already raised from local sponsors, allowing the winner to take home more than $1,700 each year, with additional seed money awarded to the second and third place projects, as determined by the votes of attendees.
Previous winners have gone on to create and build local initiatives that have already begun to make their mark in Oshkosh. The Oshkosh Food Co-op group won the inaugural event. Bridgette Weber, an environmental studies student at UW Oshkosh, pulled the Co-op group together back in the summer of 2011 and is now the President of its board of directors. An incorporated entity, the Co-op has recruited more than 60 founding members who have invested $180 in the quest to create a natural and local foods oriented, full-scale grocery store in the central city.
According to Weber, “The Creating a Stronger Community Contest really gave the Oshkosh Food Co-op leverage during the most vulnerable stage of the process, the beginning. We received $1,750, which was crucial aid in helping to cover some initial marketing and promotional materials, and most importantly our initial legal fees.” She continued to explain: “The contest enabled us to set up our business structure with professionals in the field. It also gave us confidence and initial community support that put us on the map. The Oshkosh Food Co-op is very grateful for this opportunity in our community, and hopes that others take advantage of this amazing kickstarter.”
Growing Oshkosh took first place in 2012. While it had a location, some solid plans, and board of directors in place, it was a fledgling urban farm, built upon Oshkosh native and UW Oshkosh alum Dani Stolley’s vision of producing food, flowers, fish, jobs, and hope, which she honed through extensive training at Growing Power in Milwaukee. Stolley noted after the victory, “It feels absolutely amazing to have won the Creating a Stronger Community Contest – not just because we won, and not just because it means I’ve come full circle as a kid growing up in Oshkosh, going to school in Oshkosh, graduating from UW Oshkosh and now Growing Oshkosh – but also because this is a win/win/win for the entire community.”
Since then, Growing Oshkosh has created numerous raised bed gardens, a sizable composting system, and hoop houses for year-round aquaponics and horticulture on a brownfield (contaminated former industrial site) near the mouth of the Fox River on the city’s east side. They grow and sell a variety of sprouts and other produce at the summer and winter farmers’ markets and to restaurants in Oshkosh, while working with local schools to produce their own gardens. Be on the lookout for the mercury-free, locally raised lake perch they will be raising and marketing in the future.
Not only have the winners gone on to succeed, but the second place finishers have as well. The Growing Seeds of Change urban community garden used its seed money to begin operations on Jefferson St. in central Oshkosh, and has since raised additional funding and expanded. Party.0, an organization that holds sober off-campus parties, brought a number of students out to the finals event last year and took home $750. A recent front-page article in the Oshkosh Northwestern highlighted their success.
What other good ideas are out there, which could make a positive local impact with a little seed money and publicity? CSCC is currently seeking proposals, and anyone from the area can apply. This year, the contest is taking place in late April, coinciding with Earth Week at UW Oshkosh. A link to the short, simple, online application is found at the ADP webpage (http://www.uwosh.edu/adp), and the application is due on April 20. The Earth Week banquet is happening on the evening of Monday, April 21 at 6 p.m., with the finals event at Becket’s Center Court from 7-9 p.m. on April 24. Here’s hoping we have another great batch of ideas to consider and a whole mess of people at the finals, to build community, have some fun, and plant more seeds. ν
Paul Van Auken threw the CSCC out as an idea and among other things now serves on the board for the Oshkosh Food Co-op. NOTE: Sage Cummings contributed to this article.