Green Lake/Ripon Foundation: Downtown Green Lake Renewal Project Proves a New Organization Can Make Big Things Happen

Putting a Project on the Fast Track: Mary-Jo Johnson knows a good thing when she sees it.

Having raised her family and run her business in Green Lake for 28 years, she's had the kind of lifestyle a lot of people are searching for.

Green Lake, with its much sought after waterfront property, historic buildings and quaint atmosphere, comes with all the benefits that a small town would, and the beauty that comes with its shoreline on the state's deepest inland lake.

Mary-Jo saw opportunity in the city's downtown. In 2009, she brought a few like-minded friends together to form a new nonprofit called the Downtown Green Lake Renewal Project. The group set out to capitalize on the downtown's assets.

What started with a dozen informational meetings at residents' homes snowballed into a more than $250,000 project to improve the primary access to the city from the lake.

"When we told people that our goal was to revitalize downtown Green Lake, we heard time and time again that "we love Green Lake,' "we love the lake itself,' "we love living here,' they'd like to drive their boat to get to the downtown but there's no place to park and get there from the water, and they were disappointed by that," says Mary-Jo.

The Renewal Project started asking questions and found a solution, but it would be complicated and costly. In 2011, the group proposed dredging Dartford Bay and building a wharf that includes 270 feet of boardwalk, picnic tables, landscaping and lighting. The cost was estimated at $250,000.

As fall approached, they were faced with a time crunch: Raise all of the money by the end of September and begin dredging in October, or put the project on hold for a full year.

With several large donations, a $62,000 grant secured by the city's Parks and Recreation Department, and a $50,000 match grant already in hand, they forged ahead. They had exactly one month to reach their goal.

The Renewal Project sought help from the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation. The Deacon Mills Wharf Project Fund was created to accept all of the donations and pay the bills for the wharf's construction.

"We knew that we needed the Community Foundation's help and it would give us extra credibility," says Mary-Jo. "The services were greatly helpful - we had a small volunteer board, and no staff - we were doing this out of each other's houses. We didn't have the manpower to manage the fundraiser from a financial perspective."

The Renewal Project reached its goal and even surpassed it thanks to an additional $60,000 grant secured by the city and a commemorative brick pathway fundraiser.

The wharf opened with a community celebration in July 2012 attended by more than 400 people.

"It was really quite amazing how quickly this fell into place. What's really ironic about this as we look back and say "wow, I can't believe we did it in a month,' is that we were always confident that it would happen," says Mary-Jo.

With the Deacon Mills Wharf Project under its belt, the Green Lake Renewal Project has gotten to work on other initiatives. Over the past year, the group has installed stairs and handrails to improve access to Deacon Mills Park, added a downtown touch-screen information kiosk, and helped to promote and grow the local farmers market, shopping and networking events.

In 2013, the group met its challenge to receive a $10,000 Community Impact match grant from the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation and began work on a downtown beautification plan that will include trees, benches, trash and recycling bins and flower pots. They've also started discussions about installing a wayfinding system and welcome signs on a new route into the city next year.

Mary-Jo sees potential to grow a stronger economic base in the city, and expects the Renewal Project to nurture that growth.

"We want to be a champion for the city," she says. "That's one way we see Green Lake Renewal. We are about making things happen."

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