Posts Categorized: People

Community Builder: Adam Wiltgen

Community Builder: Adam Wiltgen: Program Director, Lanesboro Arts

By Sara Friedl-Putnam • Originally published in the Fall 2017 Inspire(d)

There’s some serious pep in Adam Wiltgen’s step as he leads an impromptu tour of the arts campus in Lanesboro, a small, but vibrant, community in Southeast Minnesota.

A quick stop at Gateway Park (decorated with colorful string “surprise sculptures” made by local kids) is followed by a pop-in tour of the historic St. Mane Theatre and, finally, the Lanesboro Arts Gallery, which showcases the work of talented local artists.

Adam, program director of Lanesboro Arts, a multidisciplinary arts organization engaged in community development, is clearly proud of the prominent role that art plays in Lanesboro, and is thrilled to talk about the community’s local arts program and his role in shaping it.

“I always wanted to work in public and community-based art and make an impact on the culture of a town, to use the arts as a way to bring people together and build community,” says Adam during a brief stop at his neatly organized office above the gallery. “And as a Southeast Minnesota native, Lanesboro has always been on my radar.”

It just took a while for him to find his way back to the area. After earning a bachelor’s degree in music business and entrepreneurship at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in 2008, Adam held a variety of arts-related positions. Stints as station manager at 89.1 KPVL out of Postville and Decorah, Iowa, and store manager of the Winona Mister Groovys store were followed by a few other positions, including box office manager and then assistant managing director at his alma mater’s Performance Center. In June 2015 – on the day of the organization’s popular Art in the Park festival, no less – Adam joined the staff of Lanesboro Arts.

“What excites and energizes me about my job is the community engagement,” he says. “Each day I have many opportunities to work with business owners and other community members to improve our community. Collaboration is essential in a small town, and honestly that’s where the real fun lies as well.”

The Smithsonian’s acclaimed Water/Ways traveling exhibit, displayed in Lanesboro last winter, exemplifies the collaborative effort that has put (and kept) Lanesboro on the map regionally and nationally. The town was one of only six across Minnesota picked for the exhibit, and, with a population of 750, it was by far the smallest. “When you work on something so long, it’s almost magical to see it actually happen,” says Adam, who, as project lead, collaborated with numerous nonprofits to bring the exhibit to town. “That project was very impactful for Lanesboro – in addition to bringing the town lots of attention, it created a platform to have a sustained dialog on water issues.

In 2016 Adam was awarded a fellowship from the McKnight Foundation to travel to Austria for the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators. There he met dozens of other young arts leaders, all of whom shared their successes and challenges in using art and culture to move communities forward. He came away from the weeklong event both energized and optimistic about Lanesboro’s collaborative, asset-based approach to community building.

“From our ongoing artist residency program to the new community mural on the back of the St. Mane Theatre, the arts contribute greatly to the vitality of this place,” says Adam. “I feel really good about the future of this organization and this town, and that’s a great feeling to have.”

Community Builders: Red’s IGA

By Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Fall 2017 Inspire(d) Magazine

Meatball suppers, spaghetti feeds, pancake breakfasts: There’s no dispute that food fundraisers are a beloved Midwestern tradition, especially when there’s lefse involved.

But in small towns across the Driftless, fundees face a bit of a problem: Any such rally takes time to organize and many, many hands to run successfully. And who wants to plan for months to raise only a few Benjamins in the end (after expenses)?

This was the dilemma Pat ‘Red’ Longmire of Spring Grove, Minnesota, set out to solve six years ago. As founder and owner-manager of Red’s IGA on the east end of town, he saw mutual benefit to running a “turnkey” fundraising program for local organizations. First, Red’s chooses a tasty seasonal menu (meat, ‘taters, veg, coleslaw, and a buttered roll) and performs the food prep. Then, they set up a serving station, usually in the produce aisle of the store, and a few staff, often including Red himself, work alongside student or non-profit volunteers to assemble $9 to-go plates as customers drop in. Generally, 250 meals are served up, and when it’s done, Red’s provides the cleanup.

“My goal is to put $1,000 in their pocket every time,” Red says of the fundraiser recipients: Spring Grove student council, Lions Club, food pantry, and Friends of the Library, among several other causes. “It’s like smoking brisket,” he says, referencing one of his favorite hobbies. “I just love to see the reaction on someone’s face when they take a bite and enjoy it.”

Meanwhile, customers who stop in for the meal get a close look at Red’s ever-expanding stock of vegetables, fruits and items on promo, there in Aisle One.

“Having people come into the store, supporting a local cause, at the end of a long day, getting a plate of comfort foods, gives people a lot of confidence in shopping locally,” Red says. “It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, the more you give back to community, the stronger your support in return. As business owners, I feel it’s our responsibility to give back.”

So keep an eye on the lettered sign outside Red’s IGA (or keep-up-to-date on Facebook). Once each month, September through May, it will announce which Spring Grove organization is running a “Red’s meal deal.” Plates will feature sliced turkey breast (sometime in November), or, yes, gooey, delicious Swedish meatballs in midwinter.

This year they’ll be adding half-chicken to the rotation, utilizing the smoking equipment of Fat Pat’s Texas BBQ, a food truck Red is partnering on with his son, Patrick, Jr. Recently returned to Spring Grove with his young family, Pat (as he’s known, apart from his dad) picked up the BBQ trade as a traveling musician in – you guessed it – Texas. Father and son work side-by-side in the grocery store and in the food truck, which often sells out within an hour or two of sliding open their window for business.

“In small towns, people are giving constantly,” Pat concludes. “That’s the nature of pitching in to make things like the Christmas light display in the city park possible.” By providing a hot, familiar meal on a chilly night, Red’s IGA hopes to make that charity easy as pie.

Community Builder: Lora Friest

By Sara Friedl-Putnam

It’s early on a hot July night, but Lora Friest bounds into Java John’s Coffee House in downtown Decorah as if the day were just getting started. She’s been going nonstop for hours, but you wouldn’t guess it judging by the enthusiasm, energy, and quick wit she exudes while talking about Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation and Development (NEIRC&D).

Based in Postville, Iowa, the nonprofit organization partners with community members to diversify local economies while also protecting and enhancing natural resources. Lora, the executive director, leads a staff of 12 full-time employees.

“Our stated mission is to ‘recognize opportunities and provide leadership to make Northeast Iowa a vibrant, place-based model for the nation,’” she says. “What that really means is we want every rural area to be what it aspires to be – communities have different strengths and different dreams, and it’s our job to help them capitalize on those by empowering people who have great ideas.”

Basically, Lora and her team help communities build community.

It was 1999 when Lora left her job with Luther College’s Environmental College for Young Leaders to join NEIRC&D as its Upper Iowa River watershed coordinator. “I had worked as intern at the Decorah Fish Hatchery a few years before and kept wondering why we were continually restocking fish and not making it so that they could live and reproduce naturally in the streams,” she recalls. “There was not much natural reproduction at the time, and I wanted to be part of efforts to change that.”

And she has been. Today, thanks to the dedicated efforts of many individuals and organizations – including Lora and NEIRC&D – 45 Iowa streams boast naturally reproducing populations, compared with just five as recently as the 1980s. “It has had such an amazing impact,” she says, noting that fishing and other water activities bring more than a billion dollars to regional economy. “If you are ever involved in something that is that broad in scope and it actually works, you are inspired to do other things.”

Or, in Lora’s case, many other things, and often simultaneously – she logs, on average, 60 hours per week writing grants, conducting feasibility studies, meeting with community members and leaders, and doing whatever else it takes to build a better Northeast Iowa. That dedication has produced results: Lora estimates that she and her NEIRC&D team have helped secure more than $100 million in funding – much of that in state and federal grants – to support a wide range of projects, including the Guttenberg Marina, Decorah’s Trout Run Trail and Freeport Trail, and local foods programs.

“Yes, we have received multi-million-dollar grants, but I try to never forget how much it meant to someone that we got him or her $2,000 for a project,” she says. “That $2,000 grant can change one person’s life as much as a $1 million grant might change the lives of others.”

Some 18 years after first signing on with NEIRC&D, Lora says she never tires of visiting with people about their ideas and helping them realize that they can actually achieve them.

“The real community building occurs when a group of people sit together to envision and inform a project,” she says. “To me, it’s all about helping people realize they can work together to make a positive difference in their community.”