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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Courtesy of Bryce Richter / University of Wisconsin-Madison

UniverCity Year program adds nine new Wisconsin communities to alliance for 2022-25

The villages of Cottage Grove and Shorewood, the cities of Marinette, Milton, River Falls and Wausau, and Eau Claire, St. Croix and Wood counties were announced new partners of the cohort.

In a record-setting cohort, the UniverCity Year (UCY) program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced partnerships with nine new communities for the 2022-25 academic years. These collaborations will leverage university resources to move forward with the different communities’ goals to address specific issues facing their residents. 

Using resources from the university — and potentially $300,000 per the governor’s recommended funding based on a new state budget proposal — UCY aims to help small communities address issues from public health to sustainability to historical preservation. 

The organization focuses on research grounded in the priorities of local governments and offers opportunities to students through classes like Urban Planning 215 and community-based learning courses. 

“Through education, outreach, technical assistance and research that is grounded in the priorities of local governments, and through bridge-building engagement with policy initiatives, our efforts will have impacts to improve the places and lives of people throughout Wisconsin and the world,” said Gavin Luter, managing director of UniverCity. 

“UW-Madison is a unique partner for these communities because we hopefully are perceived to be a neutral third party whose only interest is to help the communities improve,” he added.

The villages of Cottage Grove and Shorewood, the cities of Marinette, Milton, River Falls and Wausau, and the counties of Eau Claire, St. Croix and Wood joined UCY, the hallmark program of UW-Madison’s UniverCity Alliance.

While each community has unique needs, the UCY program has seen an increase in requests around childcare issues, EMS recruitment and retention, affordable housing, program effectiveness and environmental sustainability, Luter said.

Luter also noted some unique challenges facing these small communities throughout the state, as many are still reeling from the economic effects of the pandemic.

“I think communities coming out of the pandemic are eager for assistance in rethinking the way business normally gets done,” Luter said. “There has also been more funding available for local governments, so they want to make sure that public dollars are spent in the best way possible.”

UCY community leaders shared their excitement about the initiative and the benefits of support from the flagship university in their communities.

“We’re excited to partner with the UW system and tap into the innovative minds of our next generation of leaders,” Jason Stroud, assistant city administrator for the city of River Falls, said in a release. “The resources provided by UniverCity Year will be invaluable in developing creative solutions to the complex challenges we face as a local government.”

Since 2016, 20 communities have partnered with UCY. The new class brings the total number of communities involved to 29, with 15 counties and 14 cities, towns and villages making up the cohort

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City of Marinette Mayor Steve Genisot said the community hopes the process will bring “new and innovative solutions to the many projects we are working on.” Phil Galli, justice services director for St. Croix County said working with UCY will ultimately bring a fresh perspective to challenges facing the community, like increasing access to housing. 

Additionally, the program involves UW-Madison students, which is why many of the leaders said their partnership with UCY brings about new ways of looking at issues facing their communities.

“UniverCity Year can be a program that brings these on-the-ground issues directly to faculty and students,” Luter said. “This helps us continue to stay relevant across the state, while also improving how we train students in applying their fields to public issues.”

Leaders throughout the state echoed how helpful UW-Madison can be in aiding change in their communities.

“We hope that the community will gain additional insight into the benefits of the UW system and the meaningful outreach that it can have to communities such as ours,” Norb Kirk, finance director for Eau Claire County, said in the university release. “We believe that the completion of the projects we have outlined will enhance the citizens of the county and be an example of how communities can partner with the UW System for the betterment of both parties.”

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