GRANITE FALLS -- Partly in response to political gridlock, the Bush Foundation is sponsoring an initiative it calls InCommons.
It promotes face-to-face gatherings in which participants identify the values and interests they share, and work together to reach their common. Hosted by Clean Up our River Environment, three In-Commons "listening sessions'' have been conducted to date in the Upper Minnesota River Valley.
The latest was held Tuesday in Granite Falls, where more than 40 people attended.
Using what facilitator Sarina Otaibi called an open space format, participants were en-couraged to step forward with ideas on how to improve qu-ality of life in the region.
"You identify very quickly where the passion is, and where the leadership is,'' said Patrick Moore, director of Cl-ean Up our River Environment, of the open format.
Similar to the sessions conducted earlier in Clinton and Morris, common themes emerged at the Granite Falls gathering, according to Moore. There is a strong interest in promoting local arts, history and recreational opportunities, and more connectivity among communities in the region.
A variety of possible projects were advanced, from promoting more arts-oriented activities outside of school for youth to developing outdoor recreational infrastructure. There were calls for bicycle and hiking trails to connect communities, Frisbee golf courses, and improved access for paddling the Minnesota River.
Megan Ulrich, water quality specialist with the Upper Sioux Community, is leading a project to improve riparian habitat by targeting invasive plants such as buckthorn.
Other proposals included developing a band shell in a park and creating a mural on a flood wall along the Minnesota River in the community's downtown. "That large, ugly, blank wall by the river needs some art on it,'' said Katie Lewandowski, an arts instructor in the Bert Raney Elementary School.
Joe Hauger, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency employee, is leading a project to promote ride sharing for those who commute to jobs.
Lifelong Granite Falls resident Avis Frietag is heading a group hoping to develop an "app'' for visitors.
Travelers could use a mobile phone or electronic tablet to access a "personal" tour of the community as they drive into it. Local history, natural resources and places to visit could be part of the information offered, she noted.
Moore said the individual groups that form during the listening session are responsible for moving their ideas forward. InCommons and Clean Up our River Environment will serve to keep them in contact and assist in finding resources.
Moore said a similar effort by citizens proved successful in saving a historic building that would otherwise have been razed as part of a flood mitigation project. Now, the KK Berge building is the office for the Granite Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and host site to display and create local art.
No one knew how they would save the downtown building when the citizens first gathered, said Moore, but they found the way by working together. "We build the road by walking,'' he said.