Greg Wright | Stevens Point, WI
Wanting to write instead of teach, I moved back to Stevens Point because it was cheaper for me to live and write here than in Chicago. Moving back home was better than I expected, I liked living here. I realized this isn’t the typical storyline.
We hear about people moving away from small towns to big cities but we don’t hear about people moving back to small towns. My experience of moving back home got me interested in the question of why more people don’t move back to their small towns and what I could do to change that.
I have been involved in the arts for most of my life. Today I am the Executive Director of CREATE Portage County, a nonprofit arts organization. One of the things I was hired to do is figure out what role the arts can play in making small communities attractive to retain their young people. We believe creativity is the lifeblood of thriving communities of all sizes. As such, we invest in creativity—of artists and entrepreneurs. It is easier for artists and businesses to work together in a rural community since the CEO of a local company will sit down and have lunch with you in a small town. So, we can leverage resources to get creative projects up and running faster than if we were in a bigger city. We basically provide support services to people doing creative projects to try to get as many of those projects to succeed in the community as possible. One example that stands out is a ten-week music festival we run during the summer. We set up a market space around the festival to give exposure to our entrepreneurs. The festival gives them the opportunity to share their products with an audience of about a thousand people.
A strong arts scene supports small businesses. A public art installation can change the face of a building, which can change the feel of a community, which can then draw people to it and increase commerce. The relationships CREATE Portage County built up through our community projects paid off during Covid.
In the early months of Covid, we produced 4,000 face shields, personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline medical workers. A plastic shield can provide critical extra protection when used with a face mask, so it was very important in those early days for health workers and first responders when the supply didn’t meet the demand. We worked with local experts, manufacturing companies, and community volunteers to provide PPE to thirty-eight hospitals across the state of Wisconsin and they got as far as New York and Atlanta.
We could produce so many shields so quickly because we are really good at connecting the right dots at the right time. Since we had already built a strong community, it was easy to tap into who had the skills and materials to make the shields. For example, it was hard to get the elastic needed for the face shields because there was an elastic shortage. The government had recalled most of the elastic sitting on shelves in stores for their own production. So, we reached out to our network and said, “if you have any leftover elastic in your sewing kit, drop it on your front stoop, and we’ll swing by to pick it up.” How it worked is we 3D printed the frames and then laser cut out the face shields. Next people in the community assembled them together by snapping a piece of plastic to the front of it. We hand-cut the elastic which worked as a headband. We ended up getting about 2000 face shields out the door with this donated elastic because we had so many people in the community participate in the project.
We couldn’t have done this if really great people hadn’t stepped up. For example, we needed somebody to cut the big sheets of plastic, and The Worth Company that makes fishing lures had a machine that could do it, so they just did it for us. All of these different groups of people came out of the woodwork to fill in the gaps and make these shields. All I really did was connect people to different tasks.
One of the most satisfying parts of this project was that people from all political spectrums worked together. This was in the early stage of Covid, where it felt like we were all in this together. We had very conservative people, very liberal people, people from all walks of life work on this project. To me this is one of the saddest things about how Covid has played out this past year, it doesn’t feel like we are all in this together. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of my community than when we came together to work on this project. I would do anything to reclaim that.
Greg’s story is part of Love Wisconsin’s Covid-19 series. Through this series, we are featuring shorter stories to offer a time capsule into life in Wisconsin during this extraordinary time.