Column #177. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Apr. 1, 2022; in print Apr. 3
“So. You’re from Waite Park. Where’s that? What’s it like?”
I suspect that many – maybe most – of the 8,000 residents of my city have been asked this at least once.
Over the nearly quarter century I’ve lived here I’ve cobbled together a repertoire of responses, from “It’s a small city about 80 miles northwest of the Twin Cities and part of the greater St. Cloud area” to, more recently, “It’s right at the heart of Minnesota and is a center of the arts, with GREAT Theatre’s ‘world headquarters’ and The Ledge Amphitheater.” One that worked really well a few years back: “It’s near Lake Wobegon, whose residents come here for a little more sophisticated clientele than the Sidetrack Tap and the Chatterbox Café, wider selections than at Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery.”
Waite Park acknowledges that it has an identity problem – or better, an identity puzzle that offers an opportunity. The motto is “City of Waite Park: Where Minnesota Connects.”
Mottos are both descriptions and aspirations. Mayor Rick Miller and the City Council are seizing the opportunity presented by the city’s forthcoming 150th birthday to ask this question of its citizens and others who have an investment in its flourishing: “What is your vision for Waite Park in 2043, when the city will celebrate its sesquicentennial?” In short, how will we then, even more than today, be a place where people choose to live, work, play and invest?
This whole process is called Future Search. (Disclosure: I am on the task force helping to plan the event.) The term may of the moment remind you when observes Yoda, of Jedi masters the wisest: “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”
Yes, always in motion. But what we do today, the choices we make, the visions we commit to – these help determine that motion’s direction. Difficult to see – but possible to imagine is the future.
One way to envision the future would be to distribute a survey (with options between “strongly agree” and “strongly disagree”), collate the results and graph a portrait of what the 2022 Waite Park hopes the 2043 Waite Park will look like. Interesting, even useful maybe, but skewed by the initial decision of what to include in the questionnaire.
Future Search supposes that no one (not even a mayor!) is equipped to decide alone what the vision might be, and not even a small select group (a City Council, say) is broad or deep enough. It’s fortunate for Waite Park that these elected officials acknowledge the need for professional guidance. They have contracted with a consulting firm whose principals are a former police officer and a former IBM systems engineer – in other words, persons with uncommon but highly pertinent real-world experience. They don’t claim to know the vision ahead of time, either, but they can nudge us away from la-la land.
To find common ground – that is, a centerpoint we as a community can all support and act on – it is essential to dig deep, to bring a wide spectrum of stakeholders together to learn from each other, inspire each other, provoke each other. It is likely that what comes out of such an exploration will not be identical to what anybody came into it with. It’s not just thinking outside the box. It’s thinking without a box.
The scope, scheme and schedule for the Future Search event are grounded in this conviction that we in Waite Park will discover, together, what our vision actually is.
The task force has determined that the following nine stakeholder groups will be represented: city employees; city government leaders; homeowners; renters; education system and youth; nonprofits; realtors, developers, and builders; large business; small business. There are of course persons who wear more than one of these hats, so there’s crisscrossing.
The scope, scheme and schedule also reflect the conviction that to really learn what we really want really requires a lot of time. Participants in the conversation are asked to commit 16 hours: Tuesday, Apr. 19, 4-8 p.m.; Wednesday, Apr. 20, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; and Thursday, Apr. 21, 4-8 p.m. Everyone has to promise to attend everything.
There is good representation so far, though the task force is looking for more. If you are a Waite Park stakeholder interested in taking part in the city’s Future Search (especially renters, large business, and small business), go to www.ci.waitepark.mn.us/553/Community-Visioning-Event.
The City of Waite Park wants to know how to tailor its identity, its services and its amenities to highly engage its residents and visitors – the city’s population is 8,000, but it’s estimated that on an average day at least 30,000 interact within its boundaries – so that at Waite Park’s 150th birthday in 2043 the entire state can toast the city “where Minnesota connects.”
Difficult to see, indeed. But possible to imagine is the future.