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NOTE: as of April 17, 2007, the Free to Grow program has closed.
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A 'no-brainer' that wasn't
Council overwhelmingly decides to delay mayor's CARE

In a move that was telegraphed in advance to Mayor Linda Lawrence, the Wausau City Council Tuesday night postponed a vote on whether to accept at $125,000 no-interest loan needed to kick off the Core Area Renewal Effort (CARE).

Lawrence said after the meeting that she would have preferred a quick approval, but a delay designed to give the city Council more time to learn about what's proposed for the CARE program is preferable to a turn-down.  Gov. Jim Doyle announced in Wausau Nov. 20 that the state would loan the money to buy a building at 903 N. Seventh St., which the city could use as headquarters for CARE.

Mike Morrissey, the city's director of community development, says he's not sure what reaction the delay will get from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA), the potential source of the money. He'll check with the agency, but he says it's unusual for a municipality to hesitate after an application for a loan is approved.  Lawrence says if the city rejects the loan, it could be a long wait before WHEDA approves another application from Wausau.

At the City Council's Nov. 11 meeting, Lawrence balked at requests from two City Council members that the CARE effort be put on an agenda for discussion by the whole body.  It was developed initially by Lawrence and department heads but now has expanded to include interested people from the community.  Lawrence said bringing it before the council would only open it up to argument and delay.

Passage of the motion by Alderman Ed Gale to delay consideration of the loan for 60 days came on a 9-1 vote. The only "no" came from Alderman Marty Welles, who said he wants CARE approved, but housed in City Hall, rather than its own building. Acceptance of the loan will be on Feb 10 agenda, but Lawrence says the weekly meetings will continue for the CARE Committee.

In making his motion to delay, Gale referred to a 45-minute presentation given prior to the regular council meeting by two representatives of the Free To Grow program. He said this grant-funded neighborhood improvement program, patterned after successful pilot programs in other states, has objectives similar to CARE's and Free To Grow comes with step-by-step instructions.

"They knew where they were going," Gale said. "We don't."

Somebody who has attended all the CARE meetings might see approval of the loan as a "no-brainer," Gale said, but not all have that advantage.  "There's been little information brought to the council," he said. "Bring us a plan."

Prior to the vote, Lawrence gave the council an overview of CARE.  Its goals, she said are to reduce crime, improve the condition of the housing stock, increase home ownership, improve access to community services and attempt to help families increase their incomes.  She said if a coordinator and an inspector are hired, they would be contracted and would not be directly employed by the city.

Lawrence said she saw a similar program years ago in a larger city. She visited a neighborhood center and said it gave her a greater sense of community than people would get if they had to come to City Hall. Her image of the headquarters is within walking distance of the area to be served and it would have a place where people could borrow a lawn mower or a shovel to work on their yards.

The plan is for the city to rent out the apartment in the upstairs of 903 N. Seventh St. and use that money to replace what a private owner would pay the city in taxes.  The building would get refurbished and sold, returning to the tax rolls in 2007.

Alderwoman Christine Van De Yacht said the city should learn from the Free To Grow model. She said it appears with Free To Grow, the staff meets the residents, finds out what they want to happen in their neighborhood and then makes that the priority. Van De Yacht likes that bottom-up approach --- she said CARE sounds as if City Hall will attempt to tell the residents what their priorities will be.

Most of the funding for Free To Grow through 2005 has been provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation explained Shannon Young and Alice Colby of Free To Grow. Free To Grow is run through Head Start offices. Wausau was selected as one of the 15 sites in the United States, in part because its high rates of alcohol abuse.

Young and Colby said the two foundations are helping Free To Grow in order to develop a model for an effective program that could come into wide use.  They started laying the groundwork for Free To Grow more than two years ago, but have only been going out into the community for the past 18 months.

Free To Grow in many ways resembles what Lawrence has tried to implement with CARE. Grow focuses on a small part of the city, eight city blocks on the east side south of Bridge Street, and west of Fifth. Staff have gone to each residence in the service area, completed a survey, compiled a list of problem properties, organized a community clean-up, set up social events, helped set up block watch programs where there was interest and worked with building and fire inspectors.  Measurable progress is being made, Young and Colby said.

Alderwoman Kathy Anderson, who is on the Free To Grow steering committee, said her affiliation with the program has been one of the most rewarding things she's done as a City Council member.

(Written by Pat Peckham, January 20, 2004 and reprinted with permission from


copyright 2008 Free To Grow
Free To Grow is a national program supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation with direction and technical assistance provided by the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University.