Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #187. First published in the St. Cloud Times, online and in print Feb. 5, 2023

Last April I told of an upcoming project called “Future Search” that would pose this question: “What is your vision for Waite Park in 2043, when the city will celebrate its sesquicentennial?”

“To find common ground,” I wrote, “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.”

I came into this process skeptically, cautioned by the wisdom of Jedi master Yoda: “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”

At Future Search more than 50 persons, racially and ethnically and generationally diverse – including homeowners, renters, small business and large business owners, city employees, city government leaders, educators, nonprofit executives, realtors, developers, and builders – came together for three intense days of conversation in a variety of formats. Points of agreement were celebrated, points of disagreement directly faced. “Prouds” and “sorrys” were voiced. We were fortunate to have facilitators who didn’t claim to know the vision ahead of time, and whose real-world experience (former police officer, former IBM systems engineer) made them alert to when we were veering into la-la land.

We were continuing a long tradition. The St. Cloud Journal-Press on May 3, 1893, reporting on the first meeting of the Waite Park Village Council two weeks earlier, talked about “the healthy growth this district is enjoying. A visit to Waite Park … will quickly convince [everyone] that the inhabitants of that little burg are not asleep, and that their efforts in the direction of promotion and advancement have not been in vain.”

But those citizens of the “little burg” 130 years ago would not have predicted what the 2020 census shows – that Waite Park is the most diverse community in Minnesota, as Mayor Rick Miller noted in his 2022 State of the City address. While Future Search’s reflection of the diversity of the community wasn’t perfect, it came closer than some efforts do.

The Future Search Report is available online. It identifies eight strategic initiatives to which attention was paid: Industrial/Commercial Development; Transportation; Environment; Entertainment; Housing; Public Safety; Recreation; Education. And the report highlights what I believe is the chief consequence of our taking enough time, over three days, to get out of our boxes: Realization of just how interconnected all the strategic initiatives are.

Page 14 of the report is a graphic illustration of these interconnections. Participants were asked to suggest links they saw. These were mapped on a huge whiteboard, and by the time we were done the design resembled the body’s nervous system.

The Future Search recognition that what happens in any initiative impacts all, or nearly all, the others has carried over into the subsequent work of the various teams that are translating the vision into a comprehensive plan. For example, Public Safety and Transportation are closely connected; Industrial/Commercial Development and Entertainment, in the sense that both create jobs, are linked with Housing; Entertainment and Recreation also go hand-in-hand.

In the time since April, Waite Park City Council, city staff, and other city leaders have been prioritizing where the city will focus first to start to move toward what people envisioned together. The leaders understand that everything implies everything else, but they aren’t paralyzed – they know that while each strategic initiative is individually critical to Waite Park’s future, the city has to start somewhere, and will keep all of the initiatives in mind going forward, so as to not lose sight of any along the way.

I have been part of a multi-ethnic Planning Advisory Committee for the Waite Park Comprehensive Plan – six meetings since July, one more to go. The firm that’s facilitating the Comprehensive Plan – its project manager participated in Future Search – has been attentive time and again to suggestions we have made, especially about how the various proposed goals and policies for Land Use, Housing, Economic Development, Transportation, and Parks and Open Spaces, interact even more profoundly than initially thought, and how it’s important that Waite Park’s diversity – its many cultures – be treated as an asset to enhance, not a problem to be solved.

In November, cross-functional staff groups from across the city drafted plans to tangibly and tactically start on this journey, focusing on Public Safety, Industrial/Commercial Development, and Entertainment.

Committees from city departments, guided by everything that has happened since April, are set to tackle key action items.

My initial skepticism has evaporated. Planning is working. Yes, difficult to see – but possible to imagine and create – is the future.