A big promise from the city of La Crosse is trying to change the way people think about education and economic development.
For the past seven years, community members have been working largely behind the scenes to put together a new approach to economic development, called the La Crosse Promise. Now, they're moving forward with their vision and bringing the community into the conversation.
The Promise program is offering a new way of revitalizing our community – through education, it hopes to fight trends of poverty, crime and migration out of the city, according to Brian Fukuda, a community development specialist for La Crosse County.
“We have this really great foundation for becoming this education community, that if the La Crosse Promise is put on top of that, we can really make a name for ourselves across the country,” he said.
He’s not the only one with that mindset. About 40 other U.S. cities are pursuing or have already implemented a similar Promise program, as first modeled by the city of Kalamazoo, Mich. The idea is to offer an incentive to attract or keep families in the city. In the case of the Promise programs, that incentive is a full ride to college.
The La Crosse Promise is composed of three main prongs – one of which is a place-based scholarship that offers full tuition to an in-state university. But there’s a catch – your family must live in the city of La Crosse.
“It's an incentive to get families to actually locate or invest in their community,” said Jerilyn Dinsmoor, the newly-installed executive director for La Crosse Promise.
Dinsmoor and others close to the Promise program hope the scholarship will incentivize more to take a stake in their La Crosse community.
“The family is making a direct investment in the community by building a house, and in turn the La Crosse promise is making a direct investment in that family by helping fund education for their students,” Fukuda said.
The second prong of the Promise program comprises a set of future centers, an initiative in several area high schools to prepare students for their post-secondary education or career plans.
“The approach is to get as many students as possible to be career ready - to explore possibilities for post-secondary education, to not just get the high school diploma and stop,” Dinsmoor said.
The future centers, which are already the only prong of the Promise program currently in place, would theoretically prevent Promise scholarship students from dropping out early in college. The problem was a persistent one in Michigan with the Kalamazoo Promise.
The ultimate goal of this place-based scholarship is to bring people back to the heart of La Crosse and breathe new life into our community. If that goal is successful, the third prong of the Promise – economic development - will follow. It’s something city and county workers are already working on.
“We’re really trying to create opportunities in housing and employment,” Fukuda said.
Currently, the Promise program is constrained by funding – only the future centers have been fully funded and are thus up and running.
There is no timeline for the roll-out of the place-based scholarship yet, though Promise directors say it will be presented in phases, likely beginning with a “build scholarship” that applies only to families who build a home on one of La Crosse’s 40 vacant lots. The next phase of the program would include families who buy and renovate homes in the city.