Howard Commons Activity Complex to enhance beautification, community engagement efforts
By Janelle Fisher
City Pages Editor
Floral displays, landscaping, urban forestry, environmental awareness and heritage have been on display in Howard this week, as the village played host to two advisors from America in Bloom, a nonprofit organization aimed towards promoting the beautification of communities nationwide through the use of flowers, plants, trees and other environmental and lifestyle enhancements.
Advisors Leslie Pittenger and Sue Amatangelo spent June 20 and 21 touring Howard’s parks, natural spaces and establishments — all part of the America in Bloom evaluation process for participating communities
“Every year, a number of communities across the United States sign up to be a part of America in Bloom. We chunk them out by population categories and usually two advisors will go out to the population categories and take a look at every community that’s within that population category,” Amatangelo said. “We work with the mayor, the city council, the chamber — you name it — within the community. What we try to do is help communities see a better way to maybe do things in their community. Usually it’s just the community wants to become a better place to live, work and play — it’s a great place now but they want to do even better, so we try to help them get to that level.”
To help communities be the best they can be, Amatangelo said a number of categories and topics are considered.
“We look at a number of different areas,” Amatangelo said. “We look at floral. We look at urban forestry. We also look at historic preservation. We look at environmental efforts, the community’s vitality. What is the overall impression of your community when we walk in? And what are you doing so that anyone else coming in from out of town, what’s their first impression of your community and how can you do that better?”
Amatangelo said performing evaluations is a mutually beneficial process for both the communities being evaluated as well as the advisors visiting each community.
“There’s a number of ways that we try to help communities,” Amatangelo said. “We also, as advisors, learn from communities too, because every community has something great going on, if not numerous things. So we find new opportunities, new places to go for information, and it’s all a real win-win situation.”
After all the participating communities have been evaluated, some will take that winning even further with the awarding of national recognitions.
“At the end of our time together, [communities] will come to a national symposium where all the communities get together and we’ll hand out national awards,” Amatangelo said. “The day after you [they] arrive back home, [they’ll] receive an evaluation report, and in the evaluation report [they] will receive some recommendations, some ideas, all the things [they’re] doing well, things that maybe need a little TLC, and we try to provide areas and ways for [them] to get to where [they] want to be in those areas. When we have the opportunity to see a community and then come back five years later, the results are just amazing.”
Pittenger said something as simple as getting a fresh set of eyes on things can help communities notice areas with room for improvement they may not have considered before or recognize the beauty in what they’re already doing.
“What happens in a lot of communities is you’ve lived there for a long time and you kind of have blinders on and you don’t see a lot of things because it’s always been that way,” Pittenger said. “There’s a lot of growth happening, but the nice thing about having two people come in is it’s a fresh set of eyes to tell you ‘this could be improved on’ or ‘oh my gosh, this is amazing, you really need to build on that.’”
Amatangelo said that perhaps the most valuable part of the process is not the evaluation itself, but the way people, government and businesses come together as a result to make their community the best it can be.
“The best part about all of it is it tears down the walls or the silos in communities between the municipality, the residents and the businesses,” she said. “It gets everybody working together as one. You get a lot more done that way.”
Helping to get things done in Howard is a grant from CN EcoConnexions From the Ground Up grants program, facilitated by America in Bloom and funded by Canadian National (CN) Railway to support collaborative community greening projects that enhance landscapes in communities neighboring CN rail lines.
“The way the grant opportunity was written and the project we have here at Howard Commons, it was such a natural fit,” Ben Rodgers, grant writer for the village of Howard, said. “In the grant world, you don’t want to go building things to fit an opportunity, you want your resources — what you’re working on — to fit the grant. And when we got together with Paul (Evert) and Geoff (Farr) and started talking about the logistics of what’s happening here and then there’s this opportunity that aligns perfectly with it, it was a no-brainer to apply.”
Rodgers said the Howard Commons Activity Complex, which is set to open in August and will feature a pavilion, activity building, skating rink, amphitheater, beer garden and splash pad among ample landscaping, is not only something which checks all the boxes in terms of what America in Bloom looks for in a thriving community, but is also something the village hopes will set them apart from other communities and be a point of pride for Howard residents.
“A lot of communities, even in this area, are just residential areas, with maybe a big box store, a town hall and a fire department, or they contract those services out, and that’s kind of it. There’s no singular space,” Rodgers said. “There’s no real point of pride. There might be some athletic fields and a ballpark and then that’s kind of it. We’re going above and trying to build something to encourage people, encourage activity, investment, everything like that.”
What Howard hopes to achieve with the Howard Commons Activity Complex, Rodgers said, is to keep people engaged and interested in what Howard has to offer and sustain the growth the village has seen in recent years.
“Howard is a growing community in the state of Wisconsin, and not a lot are. If you look at populations with 10,000 or more people, according to U.S. Census data, Howard’s like in the top 10 in the state of Wisconsin for a growth percentage. I mean, you’re looking at the reason why. And if you take your foot off the gas and you kind of let those plans fall to the wayside, you’re going to see that percentage decline. We want to keep people interested in the community.”
Pittenger said Howard’s perseverance is admirable, especially when there are often many reasons to let big plans fall to the wayside.
“It’s so easy to take your foot off the gas,” she said. “People will easily say, ‘well that costs too much money. We don’t have it in the budget. We’re short staffed.’ It’s easy to do that, but the communities that continue to keep their foot on the pedal, I think, are the ones that really make a difference and move forward like [Howard] is doing.”
Just a few hours and a few stops into their tour of the village, both Pettinger and Amatangelo agreed, “[Howard] is definitely a model community.”