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Inside Design Ellsworth's three-day flurry

Todd Johnson, co-lead of the University of Wisconsin - Extension's Community Vitality and Placemaking team, in his River Falls office. David Clarey / Rivertown Multimedia

Todd Johnson, University of Wisconsin - Extension land use and community development specialist, tries not to use the French term charette to describe the Design Wisconsin program.

But it might be the best word to describe the somewhat frenzied three-day community-planning process they run about twice a year.

The 19th century French word charette refers to deadline-frantic architecture students who, near the end of the academic term, would have to toss their final semester work on a cart, or charette, for grading. Sometimes, Johnson claims, students would leap into the cart to finish their work.

Charette now acts as design jargon for a short, intense design period — like this week's upcoming Design Ellsworth program.

The Design Ellsworth program is through the University Extension's Community Vitality and Placemaking team that helps communities develop their future from a city planning standpoint. Johnson's team of professional volunteers are set to arrive in Ellsworth residents' homes Thursday night and by Saturday night present a fully sketched-out plan— based on numerous meetings with community groups and a public discussion — of what Ellsworth could be in the future.

"Our process is not going to be as technically detailed as a comprehensive plan, it is more of a sketch and a direction," said Johnson, who co-leads the Community Vitality and Placemaking team. "It really gets at what are the values of the community and its hopes for the future."

The program, Johnson said, is designed to look "fast and fun" for the community, but is actually a months-long process for his team and community officials to prepare for. The production aspect of it aims to efficiently create a vision for the community and sustain interest in the area's future.

"It's a combination of excitement and exhaustion," he said. "We are running from one thing, to the next, to the next."

Program origins

The Design Wisconsin program stems from the Minnesota Design Team, a similar project across the border that started in 1983 with the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Johnson volunteered on that community planning team for over 20 years and he brought it to Wisconsin, he said.

The first community the team worked on was Grantsburg in 2014. Since then, the program has worked on other communities around Wisconsin, including Princeton, Bailey's Harbor and Kewaunee.

"This relies heavily on community involvement,"Johnson said. "It's designed to help the community tell us what their shared vision of the future is."

The usually 20-person team is typically made up of design and planning professionals who volunteer their weekends.

Before the process begins, team members will also talk with area youth to try and get their perspective. The youth put together a presentation and offer their own ideas to the design team, said Neil Klemme, a University of Wisconsin Extension youth development educator.

He handled working with a group of six Ellsworth youth, and said that it's always surprising to hear what they have to offer.

Some of the Ellsworth ideas included improving area bike paths, downtown parking and finding a way to make the annual Cheese Curd Fest safer at night.

"It always impresses me that they are that perceptive," Klemme said.

As part of the lead up to the process, the community had to complete a workbook that gauges community readiness for the program, lays out existing maps and plans and other surveys to help the volunteer team, said Kim Beebe, a member of the Ellsworth Chamber of Commerce executive team.

"It's been a long process," she said. "It seems like we're just too close to it now to talk about it."

What to expect

The three-day program costs communities about $5,000 to bring the volunteer team over and run it, Johnson said. It spans meetings with various community groups — including senior citizens, business owners, a city appointed group and area youth — living with area residents for the weekend and a larger community meal and discussion planned for Friday night.

Ellsworth resident Pam Enger is housing three team volunteers, and said she is looking forward to discussing with them some of her wants.

She is president of the Friends of the Ellsworth Public Library committee, and said she plans to emphasize the need for a larger library, along with "sprucing up" downtown Ellsworth with things like a gift shop or just painting buildings.

"We need a plethora of things," Enger said. "There's no place for kids to hang out."

The Friday meal is expecting roughly 200 people, Beebe said. The chamber helped organize the event and has since been heavily publicizing it in hopes of getting more interest for the process.

Beebe said the program stems from a Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation program focused on improving communities' downtowns that Ellsworth was accepted into, but felt the community input in the program could be improved.

"We thought there's got to be a program that allows us to get the community more involved," she said.

Johnson said that each day of the team's stay in Ellsworth is filled with various activities, and usually lasts all day.

Friday is focused on gathering community input on what the community's future should look like, and Saturday is focused on synthesizing that information into a final design. The output of the three-day program is presented on Saturday, and involves various maps, sketches and plans that help showcase what the community said its idea for the future is.

Beebe said that she hopes the discussions can be a starting point for plans to improve Ellsworth and that various organizations can participate in it.

"By going through this process, things will really come to the surface," she said. "We're at the top of the hill here, and we can get it rolling."

The Design Ellsworth dinner and workshop starts at the elementary school at 6 p.m. on Friday. The final sketch reveal is on Saturday in the high school auditorium at 7 p.m.

For more information or to register for events, visit https://www.ellsworthe3.com/ . You do not need to be an Ellsworth resident to participate.