LEAP Is Staples' Non-Profit Advocate
10 Feb 2021
Every town has a go-to place, a gathering spot where friends and neighbors take on the world’s problems, hash over local news and banter about ideas of how things should be done, what can be done and how to do it. More often than not, when the coffee goes cold, so do the ideas and good intentions until another day. Minnesota has its share of these small-town meeting spots for ad-hoc community advocacy groups that are unable, for one reason or another, to gain the traction needed to become an effective agent for their aspirations.
In some places, however, it works, such as a small group of individuals who began meeting in Staples many years ago. Included at the table were members of the City of Staples, Central Lakes College, Lakewood Health System and the Staples-Motley schools, says Tim Rice, one of the original participants. “It just was a belief that if we met on a regular basis, kept each other informed and focused on collaboration and were there to support each other that we could create a stronger, healthier community,” said Rice.
It didn’t happen overnight, but over time, the quarterly meeting gained structure, and more members. As the concept grew, the group expanded, adding public citizens, representatives of businesses, and organizations like the Region Five Development Commission, and Sourcewell to the voices. Like the chemistry of any successful team, the right mixture of talent and leadership came together in Staples. Rice says that eventually they created LEAP, a 501-C3, because they knew of organizations wanting to donate money to different groups that were “truly too small to have a legal structure to be able to receive grants,” so LEAP became a proxy third-party “where they could donate to us and then we can turn it around; like if a social organization wanted to give to a local gardening group, this way they can do that,” Rice explains.
LEAP stands for Leadership, Engagement, Advocacy, and Positiveness, the core tenets that guide the organization. They’ve done community strategic planning, they worked on the community bypass, they started and helped develop the Farmer’s Market. LEAP isn’t interested in taking anything over, says their leadership. They’re trying to fill gaps in ways that are meaningful to the community.
Staples City Administrator Jerel Nelsen says the LEAP meetings are a sought-after venue to place ideas into the open forum and receive often immediate feedback, pro or con. “It’s collaborative, and community development minded.” Nelsen says the meetings weren’t always well-known occurrences, but today they are one of the best places for networking with others in the community. Members learn about, and come to understand, ideas and positions on equal footing, while dispelling misinformation. “We don't try to take over anything, we try to fill gaps.” Nelsen notes that LEAP has been involved in many city projects, including the Highway 10 realignment, the Farmer’s Market, and is actively assessing their role in the upcoming school referendum.
One of the best stories about how LEAP impacts Staples comes from Mayor Chris Etzler. He was a regular attendee of a large, national business conference put on by Giant Impact, that takes place every year over the course of a single day, loaded with high-profile motivational speakers, and educational information on how to be a more effective leader. Etzler thought it would be a good idea to try in Staples, so he scheduled a simulcast of the event put on by Leadercast and invited as many as he could. It was “an overwhelming success,” with around 300-350 attendees, an amazing number given the population of Staples.”
One year, the coordinators of sites like this from around the country were invited to Atlanta, to learn more about hosting local meetings. Etzler recalls a David and Goliath story from his time in Atlanta. “This is a credit to LEAP, and one of the things that LEAP has done for our community,” prefaces Etzler of the Staples event. “We held it at the high school gym and we'd have 300 to 350 people participate. When I started telling this to some folks from Giant Impact and Leadercast down in Atlanta, they were like, “Really?”
“I can remember one person kind of saying “we’ve got to tell this story,” continues Etzler. “So, this person takes me kind of around to some of the leaders of the Leadercast and Giant Impact. “You’ve got to hear this; this is a community of 3,000 people that's getting 300 people at one of our events.” He’d heard there were communities or 50,000 who were struggling to get 50 people. Etzler uses this example to praise the LEAP organization that sets a high bar for a successful Staples. “I'm in Atlanta and these people from all over the country are coming to me all week long going, “How are you getting 300 people if you're only a community of 3000 people?”
There are the pundits that say LEAP is playing the role of the local Chamber of Commerce. There is some overlap too. “The chamber is to really help encourage and support local businesses to increase their business activity and community promotion,” Rice summarizes. “LEAP works at a little higher level of oversight of the whole community, but they intentionally don't interfere. We’re very careful that we don't get into their work, but we help support their work.”
LEAP continues pursuing its mission of helping make the Staples community the best it can be, working on the next priorities. Rice is humble, but when looking back he says, “I'm proud of how our community has taken a look at what the needs are of our community and then did something. I’m proud of how we don’t just talk about things but we work and we do get it done.”