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WCI named a Bicycle Friendly Business by League of American Bicyclists

Posted By Sheri Holm, Yesterday
Updated: Friday, April 18, 2014

Bicycle Friendly Business designationWe are at an environmental turning point, and businesses across the country are addressing this by turning to one simple, cost-effective and fun tool: the bicycle.

On Earth Day, April 22, the League of American Bicyclists recognized West Central Initiative (WCI) with a Silver Bicycle Friendly Business (BFB) award for leading America toward a greener future.

With the announcement of 80 new and renewing BFBs in 29 states and Washington, D.C., WCI  joins a cutting-edge group of more than 650 local businesses, government agencies and Fortune 500 companies across the United States that are transforming the American workplace.

“Visionary business leaders are recognizing the real-time and long-term impact that a culture of bicycling can create,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. “We applaud this new round of businesses for investing in a more sustainable future for the country and a healthier future for their employees.”

WCI has worked closely with the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota and PartnerSHIP 4 Health to encourage the region to embrace bicycling as a way to increase health and decrease reliance on fuel-fed transportation.
WCI promotes bicycling as an easy option for transportation for both employees and for those in the community who are attending meetings at WCI. A new rack was recently installed at the front of the building to accommodate more bikes.

“WCI actively seeks ways to create a healthier environment for our staff and for our visitors. By encouraging bicycling, we can encourage more physical activity, leading to better health outcomes and reduced health care costs,” said Nancy Straw, WCI’s president. “It is also a way to connect more with the community, promote a fun and healthy work culture and help decrease our carbon footprint.”

Moving forward, WCI will have access to a variety of free tools and technical assistance from the League to become even more bicycle-friendly.

To apply or learn more about the free BFB program, visit the League online at  

About the Bicycle Friendly America Program

The Bicycle Friendly Community, Bicycle Friendly State, Bicycle Friendly Business and Bicycle Friendly University programs are generously supported by program partner Trek Bicycle. To learn more about building a Bicycle Friendly America, visit

The League of American Bicyclists promotes bicycling for fun, fitness and transportation, and works through advocacy and education for a bicycle-friendly America. The League represents the interests of America's 57 million bicyclists, including its 300,000 members and affiliates. For more information or to support the League, visit

Tags:  Bicycle Friendly Business  Bicycle Friendly Business designation  League of American Bicyclists  West Central Initiative  workplace health 

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Eight regional schools benefit from Safe Routes to School grants

Posted By Sheri Holm, Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Eight communities in west central Minnesota will become safer places for kids and families to walk and bike, thanks to the 2014 Safe Routes to School (SRTS) federal grants awarded by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

West Central Initiative (WCI) received grants to help five school districts develop a SRTS plan for their communities. They are Ashby, Glyndon, New York Mills, Waubun-Ogema-White Earth, and Rothsay.

“WCI is looking forward to working with these communities on their Safe Routes to School plans,” said Wayne Hurley, WCI’s planning director. “These plans will serve as a guide for the communities and school districts as they consider future projects that will help children safely walk and bike to school."

MnDOT also awarded infrastructure grants to three school districts in west central Minnesota to help implement SRTS plans developed last year with the help of WCI.

Frazee will construct a multi-use trail connection to Frazee Elementary and Frazee-Vergas High School.

Battle Lake will create a sidewalk connection along Main Street, Olaf Ave. and Roosevelt Ave. path from the north to Battle Lake School.

Perham will add a sidewalk along 9th Street, an off-road path to the elementary school, crossing improvements along 2nd Avenue SW, and a separate bus one-way exit for the elementary and middle schools.

When the five new plans are complete, WCI will have assisted a dozen communities in the region with Safe Routes to School plans.

"Providing a safe way for kids to walk and bike to school provides many benefits, including improved health for kids and reduced traffic congestion around the schools. Getting in some physical activity in the morning allows kids to arrive at the school ready to learn," Hurley said.


Tags:  bicycling  biking and walking safety  Minnesota Department of Transportation  MnDOT  Safe Routes to School  West Central Initiative  west central Minnesota 

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The Minnesota Cup: Take on the Entrepreneurial Challenge!

Posted By Sheri Holm, Monday, March 31, 2014

Maybe you have a great business idea—just not the support system or plan to see it become reality. Maybe you have a great business—but it's small, just starting out. Some capital, exposure and sound business advice would sure come in handy, wouldn't it? 

Enter the Minnesota Cup: an annual statewide competition to support, celebrate and promote Minnesota's newest and most innovative business ideas. For 10 years, the Minnesota Cup competition—the largest statewide new venture competition in the United States—has supported and accelerated the development of innovative business ideas from around the state. The Cup opened for 2014 entries on March 24. State residents have until May 9 to submit entries to compete for $300,000 in prize money. 

This year, West Central Initiative is pleased to be one of its sponsors. "Everything the Minnesota Cup hopes to encourage through its competition is exactly what we promote," said Dale Umlauf, WCI's vice president of business development.

Along with helping to articulate a business idea and develop a sound business plan, there are opportunities to expand networks by meeting leading investors, developing relationships in the business community, gaining valuable media exposure and even winning the top prizes of seed capital and professional advisory services from our partners.

"We think west central Minnesota entrepreneurs have the talent, industriousness and creativity to do well in the Minnesota Cup. We want to see our region well represented," Umlauf said.

For more information about the Minnesota Cup, visit Feel free to call Dale too, at 800-735-2239. He would be happy to talk to you about how you can enter.

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Leadership Barnesville: "Are you ready to LEEEEEEEAD?"

Posted By Sheri Holm, Friday, March 14, 2014

The lights went out.

Suddenly music blared and spotlights raced across the room. "Are you ready to RUMBLLLLLE?!!!" a voice boomed then introduced the starting line-up as, one by one, players in jerseys glided across the...carpet.
This was no hockey game, and we weren't in an ice arena, but in the community room of Barnesville's Wells Fargo Bank building.

Our players? They were a team, but one made up of some of the newest members of Leadership Barnesville. It was project presentation night, and those gathered in the room were there to hear about or to present the four community projects that the Leadership Barnesville participants had been working on since they came together last September. 

Eighteen participants make up this year's group, which happens to be the 10th year of graduates. Just under 200 people have taken part in the program. That's a lot of leadership power in a town of just over 2,500.

Leadership Barnesville is a six-month, skills-based leadership program where participants learn skills and gain perspectives that they can use in the community, their jobs and their family. West Central Initiative provides a leadership grant to help fund each class.

Some of the sessions include team building, conflict resolution, leadership styles and generational thinking.

The small-team projects worked as a lab for members to apply their newly minted skills to specific community issues. 

This night, the four presentation groups focused on Business Development, Youth Engagement, Health and Wellness, and Parks and Recreation. The Barnesville Area Community Fund, which is administered by West Central Initiative, gave each group $250 seed money and the opportunity for further fundraising.

While these were the groups' formal presentations, many residents were already familiar with the projects. "What's exciting about this class is you've made a real difference to Barnesville," said Karen Lauer, executive director of the Barnesville Economic Development Authority and Leadership Barnesville coordinator.

As part of their presentations, the participants discussed each of their learning styles as well as their stretch goals that encourage them to work outside of their comfort zones. After each presentation, a panel of community foundation board members asked questions.

Community projects made an impact 

Our "hockey" players were actually members of the Parks & Rec group. Their goal was to promote outdoor recreational ice skating and ice hockey in Barnesville. They collected and sharpened 60 pairs of donated figure and hockey skates, and built shelving in the city rink warming house to store and display them. Residents could then borrow the skates. "We saw young families who didn't want to make a huge investment [in skating equipment]. This allowed them to try out the sports," a presenter explained. The team also provided new hockey nets.
The Health and Wellness group's goal was to promote overall community health. That's a pretty tall order, but the team came up with a simple and exceedingly helpful idea: they would mark out two distance routes in town, a 3.2- and a 5-mile route for running, walking and biking. The group created a map, which was added to the city website and to the Barnesville Parks & Rec brochure. They also helped develop signage that will be installed along the routes by the public works department.

The Youth Engagement team decided to raise funds for youth activities. But which one? They realized that when it came to school fundraising, the arts were often overlooked. In particular, the theatre department was in dire need of new microphones. With a problem for the creative arts came a creative solution: "Bail Out the Arts." On a bitterly cold day in February, 20 high school students were "arrested" and brought to Barnesville's historic old jail museum where residents could stop by with donations to help "bail out" the prisoners. Old-timey wanted posters mixed with new-fangled social media to help promote their cause to raise $2,000. As part of the evening's presentation, the group handed an oversized check of $2,226.59 to a very enthusiastic head of the high school arts department. 

EDA booth at Business After HoursThe Business Development team wanted a way for residents to learn more about the businesses in town--many of which they didn't know existed prior to Leadership Barnesville, especially the home-based businesses. So they developed Business After Hours, a networking event held at the Galaxie Supper Club and Sports Bar one recent evening. Businesses were invited to set up booths to promote their products and services. Fifteen businesses took part. The team charged a fee per booth so funds would be available to continue this event into the future.  
City Council Member Richard Sylvester was on hand to provide some words of encouragement to the Leadership Barnesville class, as well as some advice, such as the importance of listening to residents' needs and the art of compromise. "I have learned so much this evening," he said. "I am really encouraged that I can look over all of you and know that someone will be taking my place who will be confident and will do well."

Tags:  Barnesville  community development  community leadership  Leadership Barnesville  leadership grant  West Central Initiative 

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The (Work)Keys to Employment Success

Posted By Sheri Holm, Tuesday, February 25, 2014

West central Minnesota has been on the forefront in the state in offering the National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) program for individuals to demonstrate their workforce skills--especially those with no higher education or specific job training. 

Recently, the students in Wendy Watts' Employment Experience seminar at Jefferson High School, Alexandria, were able to take advantage of the NCRC through a one-time Family Economic Success (FES) Local Impact Grant from West Central Initiative.

FES Council member Rural MN CEP connected the high school with the grant to tailor services to meet area high school needs.

"I was so thrilled to be awarded a grant from West Central Initiative so that my Employment Seminar students could learn from this experience and realize the strong skills they possess," said Wendy Watts, Jefferson High's employment experience coordinator.

The students used NCRC's online program called WorkKeys, which assesses an individual's skills in areas such as applied mathematics, reading for information, business writing and teamwork.

"I have known about WorkKeys for many years and had wanted to incorporate it into this type of class but costs were prohibitive. The grant allowed me to see if this would be an effective use of software and time. It also provided a better way for me to assess students' skills rather than just coursework and tests," Watts said. "When I go to the work sites and discuss the employer's evaluation of the student's work, I am pleased to see how high they rate the students and how respected the students are by the employers. The tests confirmed students have the necessary skills to be successful on the job."

Watts admitted that, at first, the students were not excited about doing lessons on the computer. "As we progressed however, they soon realized that this instrument helped them prepare for the tests. The tests demonstrated their skill levels in math, reading, and locating information. It measured what is needed on the job. It also was used to replace the state MCA test if a student had not passed it yet. This saved the students time and energy by not having to retest in order to graduate."

When students learned that the class scores were better than many adults who take the tests, they were elated. "This was a proud moment for the class and individuals. After the first test we invited the principal and assistant principal into the room to hear the results from the test administrator. It was a time for my students to SHINE. Normally, this group of students would prefer to be on the job rather than in school and some struggle academically. It was fantastic to show the administration how talented these students are regarding workplace skills," Watts said. "The students found the tests to be challenging and yet that much more rewarding when they saw their fine result. It was a self-confidence builder. One student got a perfect score in math and was thrilled."

Watts plans to use other parts of Work Keys for training additional skills.

"At the end of the year I will be presenting the certificates and recognizing the students' success in the newspaper. I will send letters to their employers telling them how well students did. Since this is a year-long class it is nice to have these resources available as we study additional skills. I like the fact that students can self-assess and use certain lessons to improve their skills. Having WorkKeys web based allows students to work from home."

If you'd like to learn how WorkKeys and the NCRC could work for you or your company, contact RMCEP at (218) 846-7400.

Tags:  Alexandria  employment  National Career Readiness Certificate  Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program  workforce development  WorkKeys 

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Child care becomes talk of the town in Morris

Posted By Sue Dieter, WCI Board Member, Tuesday, February 18, 2014

On Tuesday, Feb. 11, approximately 50 people attended a town hall meeting in Morris to discuss child care, organized by the group, Greater Than Minnesota. This is a brand new effort to create child care solutions across rural Minnesota and was created in partnership with the state's six Initiative Foundations, including West Central Initiative.

The purpose of the town hall meeting was to bring together child care providers, elected officials, school staff members and parents to help develop a community solution action plan that will identify local child care and education trends, challenges and solutions.

L to R: WCI Staffer Marsha Erickson, Minn. Rep. Jay McNamar, Stevens County ECI Coordinator Diane Strobel, Greater Than MN's Heidi Hagel Braid

Those attending included our state representative, a Stevens County commissioner, a member of the Morris City Council, the Morris Area Elementary principal, the Morris Area ECFE coordinator, representatives from WCI, Head Start, Public Health, the Morris Area Child Care Center, the University of Minnesota, Morris Commission on Women, the director of the economic improvement commission and many in-home child care providers.

Greater Than Minnesota's Heidi Hagel Braid moderated the meeting and shared that their premise is that child care is a public good that allows people to work and to be productive at work. She noted that in 2012, Minnesota experienced a net loss of 335 child care programs.

Notes from Greater Than Minnesota meeting in Morris

Throughout the 90-minute meeting, participants were asked to name their top priorities and to talk about the challenges facing providers, parents and employers in Stevens County. These were posted on a bulletin board and will be used to develop a community action plan. That plan is expected to be completed within a month.

Additionally, the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota, Morris, is working with the Greater than Minnesota group to survey parents about child care. The survey is available at through the end of February. Another survey will be distributed later for child care providers.

The organizers from Greater Than MN held similar meetings in Benson, Chisholm and Fertile.

My take on the meeting

It was frustrating for me to hear that parents are still struggling with some of the same issues that I faced when I was looking for quality care for my children, such as lack of child care options especially for infants, and no child care available on weekends or evenings. And while it is no longer a struggle I face every day, I am hopeful that local government officials and employers recognize the importance of quality early childhood to their workforce.

The exciting part of this meeting was having the many different viewpoints all voice similar concerns and be genuinely interested in tackling this issue.

Tags:  child care  early childhood  First Children's Finance  Great Than Minnesota  Morris  Representative Jay McNamar  Sue Dieter  West Central Initiative  west central Minnesota 

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Choosing Rural Minnesota: Merle Wagner

Posted By Nancy Straw, Thursday, February 13, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Here is our next blog post in the series The Promise of Place: Choosing Rural Minnesota. WCI President Nancy Straw shares her interviews of some of the fascinating people who live and work in west central Minnesota. Her mission: to find out why they chose to make their home in our region. Along the way, she hopes to pique other people's interest in living and working here too! 

Shy Guy to CEO: Merle Wagner

Bonnie and Merle Wagner surrounded by their grandchildren

When people meet Merle Wagner they'd be surprised to hear him say, "If you'd have known me in high school, I could hardly say my name I was so shy.” What took him from shy teenager to CEO of WASP, Inc. in Glenwood, Minnesota? He'll tell you it was being active in his community and learning by doing, which built confidence and developed his talents.  

Merle followed a path very typical for small town Minnesota youth: he graduated from Glenwood High School, went to Alexandria Technical and Community College just a few miles away, married his high school sweetheart and moved to the Twin Cities to get a job.

Within a few years, Merle and Bonnie had two children and Merle had a job that provided a good life in the Twin Cities and allowed them to make frequent trips to Glenwood. Then one day the economy took a downturn and the job was gone.

With a young family to support, Merle was pleased to find work back in Glenwood. It was a dream come true to be closer to their families, but it required some adjustments. Merle's income was going to be a bit less, so they sold their new car and moved in with Bonnie's parents until they could find a place to rent. It was a surprise to them that there were not many homes available for rent; that's as true today as in was in the 1970s.

The Wagner family experienced many changes with the move. They had to get used to businesses closing earlier, and having one's entertainment options narrowed mostly to school and community activities. But the kids had grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins nearby. Bonnie started providing childcare so she could be at home until their children started school. There was more time for family and recreation. The kids could fully participate in any school activity they signed up for, and both Merle and Bonnie were able to attend all of their school activities, something that was very important to the couple. In fact, Merle resigned from being fire chief because he was missing too many of his kids' activities. 

Merle developed leadership skills by participating in community and service organizations. Nearly everything he joined in the community led to a leadership position, often president of the organization. Merle was also the announcer for the high school football games for 25 years, a role he didn't imagine for himself, and he learned simply by doing it. When talking about community service, Merle says, "It builds a person, you know? Teaches you leadership skills and gets you ready for your next step.” He adds that, in a small town, "Everybody has to participate in some way. It's a good way to meet the people in the community and to find out what's going on.” This holds true in most small towns where there are many things that need to be done by a relatively small number of people.

Something else that happens in a small town: everyone seems to know your business. Some people don't like this, but Merle believes that shows how much people care about each other. "When you're in need--whether it's health or financial--the community's there to support you and help you. I mean the outpouring of support is just unbelievable,” he says. Merle compares that to larger communities where, "often nobody knows who's next door or what they're doing.”  

Merle's career as CEO of WASP, Inc., a manufacturer of non-powered ground support equipment for the aircraft industry, brought him professional and financial success.    

When reflecting on how things might have been if they had stayed in the Twin Cities, Merle says, "I don't think I would have had the experiences down there that I had in working in the rural area. I don't think I would have been able to climb the ladder this far in a metro area.”

Since retirement, he and Bonnie enjoy traveling and time with their children and grandchildren. They recently returned from a riverboat cruise in Europe.

Merle credits Glenwood with providing a very good life for his entire family. He would like to see more people enjoy the high quality of life in places like his hometown. He sums it up like this: "I think living in a rural area, especially our area, is exciting and I just wish we could get more of the young people to see the benefit of what we have.” He suggests a billboard like this along I-94 near Glenwood: "Are you tired of driving this road every Friday night? Why don't you come and live with us and work with us?'”

Tags:  Choosing Rural Minnesota  Merle Wagner  Nancy Straw  rural stories  WASP Inc  west central Minnesota 

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Winter 2014 FOCUS on the Region is now online!

Posted By Sheri Holm, Tuesday, February 11, 2014
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Choosing Rural Minnesota: Dick Pemberton

Posted By Nancy Straw, WCI President, Wednesday, February 05, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Today we introduce a new blog series, The Promise of Place: Choosing Rural Minnesota. WCI President Nancy Straw shares her interviews of some of the fascinating people who live and work in west central Minnesota. Her mission: to find out why they chose to make their home in our region. Along the way, she hopes to pique other people's interest in living and working here too!


Success in a Small Town: Dick Pemberton

Dick Pemberton, Fergus FallsWhen you enter Dick Pemberton's office, you see mementoes and awards that come from a successful career. Success like this does not happen to everyone, but hearing Dick's story, you learn that not only can success happen in a small town; it may even help to be in a small town.

Dick Pemberton, of the law firm Pemberton, Sorlie, Rufer & Kershner in Fergus Falls has been recognized by his peers as a "Super Lawyer,” led the Minnesota Bar Association as President, been named one of the "Best Lawyers in America" year after year, and received numerous awards. He has achieved all of this working from his law office in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, for fifty years.

So what attracted Dick to Fergus Falls? "I was looking for a law firm where I could try jury cases and this law firm had a reputation of doing just that,” he says. When he found it, the firm happened to be in a town of 14,000 people. He was open to the idea of living in a small town as long as he could accomplish his professional goals and was drawn to the area with its farmland, rolling hills and lakes. He and his wife, Betty Joan, found a home where their children could walk to and from school. They later added a rustic lake cabin to pursue a wide range of outdoor activities.

Besides maintaining their lake cabin, Dick has done things many lawyers often do not get to do: welding, carpentry, gardening, putting up firewood, mechanical work, and taking care of a large garden. With its rich farmland to the west and pine tree forests to the north, the Fergus Falls area has given him the opportunity to enjoy hunting and teaching his children to hunt and fish.

Dick also believes that meeting and dealing with people who were very different from those he knew growing up helps him deal with the range of people he meets through his law practice. He met a lot of people from all walks of life through his experiences in the military, college and law school, working on his grandparent's farm and holding jobs in canning factories and parking lots.

The decision to stay in Fergus Falls was made over and over again, almost on an annual basis. Even when offered the chance to become the solicitor general of the state, Dick refused. "I might have had a nice office on the 30th floor of some skyscraper and I believe I would have been miserable,” he explains.

Dick believes that practicing law in Fergus Falls has been helpful in his career, even while some may think success cannot come without being in a large urban setting. He credits law partners who are very good at what they do and who have been reasonable and fair with him. Dick says, "…it's certainly been a help because I've ended up trying more jury cases than almost anybody who's still around.” He saw the opportunity to do what he wanted to do and took it.

Much of Dick's work these days is in mediation and arbitration, and he is in high demand, indicating that people have come to know and respect him. His membership in some of the most prestigious, invitation-only peer organizations of trial lawyers (American College of Trial Lawyers and American Board of Trial Advocates) is further evidence of his accomplishments. Dick says he was invited into these organizations, "in spite of the fact that I don't play golf.”

Tags:  choosing rural Minnesota  Dick Pemberton  Fergus Falls  living rural  Nancy Straw  rural life  small town life  West Central Initiative  west central Minnesota 

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