Program strives to better community through public input

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 1, 2003

Albert Lea is listening. And talking. And trying to improve your way of life through a program called Albert Lea Listens.

Initiated by the Chamber of Commerce, the program was designed to dissect community members’ concerns and praises of Albert Lea’s way of life. The input will help the Chamber form a strategic plan to improve the Albert Lea community.

Julie Jensen and Alex Johnston are co-chairs of a steering committee that began the process. Working with Virchow Krause, a Wisconisn-based consulting firm, the committee is organizing brainstorming sessions.

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A community can be in one of two states, said Jensen. &uot;Growing and declining. We’ve been declining.&uot; But she hopes that Albert Lea Listens will begin to aid growth.

&uot;Things are going well in Albert Lea,&uot; said Ed Henschel, a Virchow Krause representative who has attended the steering committees.

The committee is forming groups comprised of people from specific areas of the community. For example, there will be a group made up of students, one of retailers and one of clergy.

Henschel said that of the many methods that communities form strategic plans, &uot;This is one of the more intensive in terms of the community’s attempt to reach (citizens) and public interest groups.&uot;

&uot;This is a large undertaking,&uot; said Mark Olchefske, a member of the steering committee.

In addition to the specified committees, all citizens from the general public are invited to one or all of three meetings in December.

Olchefske is even trying to organize groups made up of former Albert Lea residents living in or near the Twin Cities.

He said that a question he wants answered is, &uot;Now that you’ve been out of Albert Lea for a while, what do you see as opportunities for growth?&uot;

Virchow Krause has trained some community members to facilitate the groups.

Olchefske will act as a facilitator for a business-oriented group. He said that he was trained to be impartial and to extract information from all participants of the group. Facilitators were advised not to opine.

The co-chairs are not sure of the exact topics of each group. They want the discussions to revolve around making Albert Lea a better community in which to live.

Within that ambit, &uot;They can talk about anything,&uot; Johnston said.

However, he wants the groups to stay away from criticizing people and focus more on issues.

Once key points are extrapolated from the groups’ meetings, they will be sent to Virchow Krause, who will &uot;assimilate the information, then review it with the steering committee,&uot; Henschel said.

The destination of the information after it reaches the steering committee has not yet been decided. But officials said that they wanted it broadly dispersed to the community.

When asked what makes their project different from many other groups who are meeting to talk about improving Albert Lea, Johnston said that the public &uot;has to have faith in the Chamber.&uot;

Jensen emphasized that the meetings are for everyone.

(Contact Benjamin Dipman at or 379-3439.)