Maybe, it was the nice weather. Maybe, it was the publicity. Maybe, it was just the momentous nature of the event. Perhaps, it was all of that. Whatever the reason, several hundred people attended the open house at the Gays Mills Community Commerce Center on Sunday afternoon.
Estimates of the crowd size varied from 250 to 400. The nature of the event, which included open houses at the new EMS Building and a single-family relocation residence, made keeping track of the crowd’s size nearly impossible. In addition to three separate sites, the four-hour time span also meant the entire crowd wasn’t there at the same time.
If it was hard to determine the size of the crowd, it wasn’t that hard to determine their mood, which was decidedly upbeat and positive about what they were seeing at all three open houses.
The biggest single moment of the day was probably the ribbon-cutting event at the Gays Mills Community Commerce Center. The building contains the village office, the public library, a community meeting room and a large shared-use kitchen intended to be a business incubator. After many acknowledgements by village president Craig Anderson in the building’s crowded hallway, Methodist minister Lorie Betz made some remarks and introduced Father Zacharie Beya, the local Catholic priest, for the invocation.
Then, it was time to cut the ribbon. A large red ribbon was stretched across the front entrance held on one end by Anderson and at the other end by former village president Larry McCarn. On cue, five village trustees, each equipped with their own scissors, cut the ribbon and it became official—the Gays Mills Community Commerce Center was open.
Those who had come to see the new building were impressed in many directions. For some, it was the new spacious library with its handsome furnishings and unique decorating. Others marveled at the large shared-use kitchen, known as the Kickapoo Culinary Center, and its ample assortment of high-end commercial cooking equipment. Many enjoyed a look at the accessible and spacious village office and boardroom. Finally, there was the very large community meeting room complete with the historical panels created by the UW-LaCrosse History Department. There were more than a few in attendance struck by the beauty of the view of the Kickapoo River slough and the vista beyond from the community meeting room’s large picture windows. There were also refreshments and lots of conversation.
However, the day included more than just the Community Commerce Center’s open house.
Reaction to the new EMS Building, located about a half mile north on Highway 131, was just as positive. That reaction was intensified from those who knew the circumstances under which the Ocooch Mountain Rescue Squad had been working since the floods.
“It’s a nice improvement,” said Larry McCarn, a rescue squad driver. “Now, we have a good place to store both units.”
The building has in-floor heat to keep the two rescue units ready in the coldest of weather. There are also showers and a decontamination area. There is an office and training area as well.
“It’s really nice for all of us,” longtime rescue squad member Peggy Lathrop said. “We’re very happy to see this building. To think we started in a truck (almost 30 years ago) and to wind up with something like this.”
Meanwhile, CouleeCap had plenty to show off with the seventh house that they have helped to construct for residents relocating from the floodplain. The three-bedroom house, located at 617 Ten Hills Street, will be the new home of Rebecca and Benjamin Eby.
CouleeCap Housing Specialist Michelle Engh was happy to explain the non-profit agency’s role in the village’s relocation effort. In addition, to assisting in the construction of seven single-family residences like the one in the open house Sunday, the agency has also built two five-unit townhouses and is in the process of building another seven-unit townhouse.
“This is so nice,” was the comment heard over and over throughout the open house events Sunday from visitors seeing the progress made in Gays Mills for the first time.
A host of officials and politicians, who had been a part of the recovery effort, were on hand for the event. Anderson acknowledged State Senator Jennifer Shilling, State Representative Lee Nerison, former State Senator Dan Kapanke and Crawford County Board Chairman Pete Flesch during his brief remarks at the ribbon cutting. He also noted that John Medinger, the representative of Senator Herb Kohl, and Mike Seita, representing Congressman Ron Kind, were present for the event.
In addition to the politicians, there were several representatives from the government agencies instrumental in funding the project. Caryn Stone, a flood recovery specialist with the former Wisconsin Department of Commerce, came to see the progress, as did Carolyn Wetuski, an official with the USDA’s Rural Development Agency. There were several other officials on hand from government agencies that had been involved with the project.
Crawford County Dairy Princess Sherry Schwert made an appearance.
Anderson also thanked everyone involved with design teams for both the Community Commerce Center and the EMS building. He singled out Gays Mills Long Range Planning Committee Co-chairpersons Ritch Stevenson and Maura Otis for the role that they and the committee played in laying the groundwork for the project.
Reactions of the politicians and government workers were also overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s a day of new beginnings for Gays Mills,” State Senator Jennifer Shilling (D-LaCrosse) said after touring the open houses. “The collaboration that went into today involved different units of government pooling their resources for infrastructure improvements. I’m so impressed by all of it.”
State Representative Lee Nerison (R-Westby) was equally impressed by what had been accomplished in Gays Mills.
“To be along for the whole ride from the floods of 2007 and 2008, and through all the discussions that followed, it’s kind of nice to see what can happen when everyone works together,” Nerison said. “It was good to see the federal government working with the state government and the local residents. To see it come to this point, well, it’s been a long bumpy ride. We’re beginning now to see what came from everyone working together.”
Nerison acknowledged that “for a long time things just seemed to be standing there.” Now, he believes the community has begun to see the results and can see “things moving in the right direction.”
Shilling and Nerison weren’t alone in their praise for the progress made in Gays Mills.
Caryn Stone, who had worked with village officials throughout the project, managing funding through Community Development Block Grants administered by the state was also happy to see the progress the village had made. However, she admitted there were moments, when she wondered if the village would be able to complete the recovery effort.
“You always had your doubts about whether a small village with that amount of need and that amount of money could do it,” Stone said. “But, when they started to get help from experienced people like CDA (Community Development Alternatives), CouleeCap, Vierbicher and others, it became obvious that it was going to happen. There were a lot of good partners pulled into this community.”
What did the hosts think of the event?
“It was a lovely afternoon. What can I say?” village president Craig Anderson said later. “A number of residents, some seeing it for the first time, said they were very impressed. Some had suggestions, as well.”
Anderson also felt people were ready to do more to further the recovery effort.
“I got a definite sense that while people were impressed by the building, they were also inspired to do further projects, such as taking on the trail project along the old railroad right-of-way.”
Brad Niemcek, the director of the Kickapoo Culinary Center, met several folks that were interested in working on food projects in the kitchen.
“I had a number of really interesting conversations with people who might be incubator clients,” Niemcek said. “Some of them were surprised by what they found here.”
Niemcek said the two most solid prospects that he met were interested in using the kitchen for baking.
For her part, librarian Maura Otis loved the open house. Among everything else that happened, the library received two books to add to the collection. One, written by a local author, is about the failed dam project in LaFarge and the other is a horse-related book written by a friend of the donor.
“It was a truly great response to the new library,” Otis said.
Village clerk Dawn McCann was also happy to see the lovely weather and many visitors for the open house.
“I was surprised by the number of people from out of the area that made the trip here to see the buildings,” McCann said. “We had people from Soldiers Grove, Prairie du Chien, Viroqua, Boscobel and Fennimore. It was really nice to see all those people from out of the area here.”