A Living Learning Lab in Wisconsin Rapids

As those of you who read my blog regularly know, I’ve been working with the Village of Pulaski on an adaptive reuse effort for the Franciscan Printery Building in their downtown. A group of stakeholders joined me on a field trip to Wisconsin Rapids last week to dive into a similar project happening a few hours away. We had an exceptionally valuable learning experience and can’t thank Wisconsin Rapids enough for their generous hospitality.

I’ll try to keep this from getting too lengthy, but I’d love to share some of Wisconsin Rapids’ destination cultural amenities and how they have rallied together around the Tribune Building project.

Wisconsin Rapids Convention and Visitors Bureau

Our morning meeting gave us an intimate look at a community in transition. When Consolidated Paper Mills was sold to a Finnish Company in 2000, nearly 40% of local employment was lost over the next five years. The industry (primarily coated paper) that had protected and carried the community for more than a century seemed to be dissolving from underneath the feet of Wisconsin Rapids. The concentrated wealth in the community was tied to non-convertible machinery. Paper still functions in Wisconsin Rapids, under New Page Mill, but the region has strived to diversify and has garnered more recent exposure for the cranberry industry as a food product and as an agritourism business.

Wisconsin Rapids’ goals are to retain more of their high school graduates and to attract educated individuals who move to the area for employment and for cultural quality of life. This are identical goals to those of many other Wisconsin communities. There remains a quandary about the chicken or the egg – do young people have to bring cultural amenities with them, or do you invest in cultural amenities first to bring them to your community?

The Wisconsin River has been aggressively locked and dammed over the last century for industry and has never truly been seen as a recreational river. The emergence of silent sports recently may be a new draw for the region – you don’t require as much open space to use a kayak or stand up paddle board as you’d desire with a motorized boat.

The CVB made a progressive choice in locating their beautiful office in the downtown district, rather than by their main corridor of hotels. The building has historically always been a bar, and was redeveloped into two units on the ground floor and a large modern apartment on the second floor. Karen’s Wines and Steins relocated in the other half of the first floor. The wine bar has riverfront views and incorporates educational information about the region, cranberry heritage, bike trails, etc. in a visually appealing way within the wine bar.


Central Wisconsin Cultural Center


While taking a stroll through the downtown district, we stopped in at the Central Wisconsin Cultural Center. Located in what looked to be a former shopping center, the building has a mix of large open spaces with some smaller studio and recording rooms. This space is programmed for performances (live music), gallery work displays, arts instruction (papermaking, ceramics, painting, etc.), and artists sell their wares here, as well. There is a recording room with a piano and keyboard and a small gift shop featuring local prints, jewelry, even locally made preserved food items. There may be cooking classes on site, too (am not certain) as there was a kitchen for rent. Rooms can all be reserved by the public. It seemed like an excellent avenue to engage likeminded community members in frequent activities and to offer artists a chance to engage with the community at significantly lower startup costs.

McMillan Memorial Library


The McMillan Memorial Library is a large two story facility downtown, but not right on the main drag of downtown. The library is different upon entry from a traditional library as you are greeted by a large periodical section, DVD rental, a coffee shop, booth style gathering space and computers with bar style seating. There is also no carpeting in the main area of the first floor – the floor is a composite material made from recycled tires. The coffee shop is not a licensed kitchen, but they have heat and serve food items – such as nachos, oatmeal, pizza, cheese fries, Bosco sticks, pretzels, stuffed pretzels, sandwiches, yogurt, baked good items, soda, coffee and juice. Prices range between $1-$6 (for a full pizza) and food can be enjoyed in any area of the library. People are also welcomed to bring their own food in – and there are no catering restrictions.


Further back on the first floor is a theatre with seating for (I’m estimating) 200 people. Performances and movie screenings take place here – all events held here are free to the public. Behind the theatre is a digital lab with a green screen/recording equipment, audio/visual recording equipment and editing software and 3D printing capabilities. As per the librarian managing this section, this is a well-used outlet of the library for students who learn Adobe Creative at school but lack access at home and the ability to work on non-school related creative projects. 3D printed projects cost 0.05 cents per ounce of plastic.


The library has a gallery of photos of historic downtown Wisconsin Rapids on display on the first floor. This is part of a larger effort to create an on-loan collection of digital art. Digital art prevents the liability of damage to original artwork, and is well received by members of the business community who can borrow and display historic photography.

On the second floor of the library is the more traditional collection. The adult reading section has some updated furniture and wider than traditional aisles, but was similar to a traditional library in many other senses. The children’s reading area was the most engaging, in my opinion. The library director mentioned that Wisconsin Rapids does not have a children’s museum, so the library was very much designed to have elements of a children’s museum for play. With large foam building blocks, moveable furniture, and unique, child-sized seating – it is a very inviting space. iPads have Osmo software installed to allow for 3D drawing and spatial game play, and child-friendly computers with easy software and large colored keyboards are also present in the children’s section. It was noted that parents love utilizing the coffee shop downstairs to socialize while their children read or play.


There is an outdoor children’s garden, if you will, immediately outside of the children’s section which is closed off by fence to outside access. It is a part of a designated pollinator wayfinding network and has milkweed plants in spring/summer, where the butterfly migration is a learning lab exercise. Artificial turf miniature hills (24”) are used for storytime and outdoor play – it dries quickly in case of rain and doesn’t have grass stains. An alphabet maze spray painted onto the cement outside encourages active learning and play.


One final note on the library – there were colored volume zones within the library. While the second floor had more traditional quiet zones, the first floor was designated as a conversational zone – where people could expect to hear normal volume voices. This changes the construct of libraries being known exclusively as quiet zones!

Incourage Community Foundation & The Tribune Building Project

Our afternoon group meeting began in the conference room of the Incourage Community Foundation offices. We learned about Incourage’s transition from a more traditional community foundation role to one of engaging in enterprise development in Wisconsin Rapids. Incourage Community Foundation focuses on a vision of equity, opportunity and shared stewardship, and realized that they had a much larger job to do once Consolidated Paper was sold, as the identity of the community was in jeopardy.


The Tribune Building (former newspaper HQ for Wisconsin Rapids Tribune) was acquired by Incourage in 2012 and has undergone a community-driven design process. Incourage worked with Concordia – a group out of New Orleans, LA for the design process.

The new messages and dialogue that Incourage hopes to convey and encourage through this project are:

  • We are a story of resilience in rural, central Wisconsin
  • “I don’t just choose to live in Wisconsin Rapids, I see it as an opportunity living here.”
  • We are the community that rallied together through a crisis
  • We are the community that sees a new chapter in natural resource stewardship
  • We are the community that deserves the best amenities for our residents and we seek to develop strong social capital in the process
  • We are moving our community conversation from “I” to “we”

Five norms were established by Incourage – which were expected to be followed as the process moved forward and sometimes challenging conversations were had:

  • Be inclusive – everyone’s voice is heard
  • Encourage open, honest and direct conversations
  • Understand everyone has expertise
  • Be respectful
  • Ask clarifying questions when necessary

Meetings were known as safe spaces to share feelings as residents. Through this process, Incourage Community Foundation earned the trust and respect of the community.

Consensus and compromise were a part of the conversation, too. Over 900 ideas were initially submitted for the space – and as they were whittled down by price and space constraints, the group had the responsibility of ensuring that:

  • They were not duplicating services available in the Wisconsin Rapids community
  • That items were proximate to other like or complementary services within the building design
  • That the structure of the building was functional for these proposed uses

The building has been gutted at this point and construction is moving ahead. We were able to tour the site as a group and even see the roof – which will be a third added floor with an outdoor component. The final design will include:

  • Microbrewery
  • Café with rooftop lounge
  • Culinary kitchen
  • Recreation rental shop (bikes, kayaks, stand up paddleboards)
  • Creative workshop/makerspace
  • Gift shop for local goods
  • Welcome center
  • Conference/meeting rooms
  • Game room and play area
  • Art studio with classroom
  • Social space with gallery
  • Outdoor plaza

I’m so proud to see this project taking space in a Wisconsin community with such motivation, drive and with ambitious and passionate individuals behind the wheel. I can’t wait to see it progress forward. We have a lot of takeaways we plan to apply to our own project in the future from this experience. I’m really looking forward to the next year of planning and design within Pulaski.

Thank you to our hosts for their hospitality and openness to sharing with us.