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A first for Indian country, created by and for the Winnebagos

WINNEBAGO, Neb. - It was once called Little America and it may regain that name when an entirely new village complete with retail stores, government offices and multiple family housing emerges.

It's all about health, culture and sense of community, and above all, it may be the first time in modern history the concept of new urbanism is brought home to Indian country.

To make the project work, it will take a need, a dream and hard work. The need exists to create middle class housing because people are leaving Winnebago. Most housing is created for low income families and with more jobs and opportunities the low income numbers are shrinking and people are moving out of the community.

The dream is that something like this can happen with the right government and community structure. The hard work starts with the research needed to seek out grants and funding from outside sources to make a potentially $20 million project doable.

"When I was young there were three cafes in town, a clothing store, the town was thriving. I thought of the old days and thought maybe we can bring back Little America," said Burt Greyhair, Winnebago Elder.

The new village will carry with it a chance for families to engage in home ownership with the opportunity to sell and purchase while building equity in the largest investment a family can have. It will bring about an economic base for Winnebago and members of the community and Nation.

The present village of Winnebago, governed by a board of trustees, will annex the new community and increase the tax base for the village, which will give it a greater opportunity to provide infrastructure.

A 40-acre tract of land, formerly a corn field on the north edge of the present town of Winnebago, will become the activity center of town. People will be encouraged to walk to stores and offices and also take part in outdoor and indoor activities as a community to help improve health.

The older, traditional village of Winnebago is not all that large and everything is basically within walking distance. However, walking to tribal offices or the hospital or college requires people to use the streets instead of safe and attractive sidewalks or walking paths.

The new village will have inviting walking paths and even when the village enlarges beyond the initial 40 acres; everything will be within a few minutes walk. The new village will contain diversified retail and office space, tribal and BIA offices, a civil center for gatherings, a wellness center and whatever else the people want.

In fact, with new walking paths, a walk to the new hospital on the south edge of town will only take 15 minutes and getting to Little Priest Community College will be easy.

The design was developed with the help of the Winnebago people who advised a team of nine architects and community planners. A week of design changes brought about a concept for the new village - a true consensus for the new urbanism of Winnebago.

The entire project should not financially burden the Winnebago Tribe. So far, the planning stages and the next phase of preparation has - and will be - financed with grant money and donations. Ho-Chunk Inc. helped leverage the grants and the Ho-Chunk Community Development Corporation has also lent assistance.

"If you have a plan and can shift around grant funds you can make it attractive from a fund-raising point of view. You need outside help," said Lance Morgan, executive director of Ho-Chunk Inc. His organization spun off a non-profit company, Ho-Chunk Community Development Corporation and also Ho-Chunk Planning department.

"Foundations will give us the money to be part of something special not just because we are Indians," Morgan said.

Grant moneys came in for the planning and design process and for the infrastructure and beginning stages of the building process. Commitments from the federal government and large businesses provide rental income that can also be leveraged and used for investment.

The homes in the community will be offered at a large discount and down payment money up to $20,000 is available for qualified home buyers. Rental units will also be available within the first phase of the project. Ho-Chunk Inc. owns Dynamic Homes in Minnesota that will discount home construction; the Ho-Chunk Construction company will finish the homes and buildings.

It's all part of a community working together with outside investment to help itself.

"I think the Ho-Chunk Community Development Board should be commended for understanding there needs to be a balance between economic success and improvement in the quality of life for the people we serve, said Lorelei DeCora, former director of health and currently a tribal council member.

The increase in diabetes among the Winnebago people prompted the creation of a wellness center, the Whirling Thunder, and also spawned the idea of encouraging people to walk and pay attention to diet. The new village was conceived with that thought in mind.

"This was something that happened before I came on the tribal council. I've been to a couple of meetings at Ho-Chunk and I got real excited by it," said DeCora.

In addition to the health focus, culture will become an integral part of the community design. It may not be a literal design, but symbolism will be found most everywhere. The center of the community will be circular with an appliqu? design known to the Ho-Chunk along with sculptures of the clan animals and a long house also used by the Ho-Chunk.

"The clans were important to us because they created balance in our community. With this new village we hope to have that vision behind all the different buildings and homes that will go there. So I think improvement of quality of life fits right in with that desire for our Ho-Chunk people," DeCora said.

Other purposes of the new village will be to attract and retain community members, establish a sustainable economic base and offer a location for visitors to shop and learn about the Ho-Chunk culture.

A variety of shops, offices and light industry will bring about the diversified nature of the community. Rental housing will be incorporated with owner occupied dwellings. People will be able to live above their offices or shops and there will be multiple family dwellings incorporated with single family homes.

When community members attended the design meetings, one of the most frequently uttered phrases was, "don't make it look like a HUD development," or "we don't want to see any HUD homes," and that, the planners said, would not happen.

Many times housing projects are located on land that is available, not land that has been sought out for its convenience to a central area or for its community potential.

"The town should have a sense of presence," said James Moore, lead designer for HDR, Inc. "The design team is from around the country, but you are the ones who know your community," Moore said at a community gathering.

"It is important to create a sense of presence, a sense of place. It needs to have a sense of identity; you want something that says who you are. There is the challenge to design this thing right. You can be as liberal and free thinking within your own space," Moore said.

In order to get some of the aspects of the culture right, members of the design team spent hours with Ho-Chunk Historian Dave Smith at Little Priest Community College. Smith spent much time explaining the clan structure and how a traditional village of hundreds of years ago would have been laid out according to the clan contribution to the entire village.

Although the village will not look like one from 200 years ago, the circular feel of the new village will be implied and the cultural images will be implanted into the buildings and walkways to remind people who they are and to teach others about the culture.

The balancing act of an ancient culture and modernity continues to be a guiding force in the design. There were very few people who attended the public design meetings that were not concerned about the identity of the village. In the end most were satisfied with the design and the explanations from the design team that included the cultural aspects.

Across the road from the new village is the Winnebago Tribe's bison pasture, something that brings pride to the community, Louie LaRose, head of the bison project said. One of his requests was to create a walking path around the pasture so people could feel closer to the bison for a cultural connection.

The bottom line for the new village is to make it attractive for professional people, young couples, elders, and working people in order to create a completely diversified, traditional village. There is very little land for people to buy, lease, or have held in trust to build a home, James Snow, tribal vice chairman said.

The plan originally was to make it look like a rural Nebraska town of decades ago when people lived in privacy with homes that both encouraged and discouraged visitors, where front porches were used and back yards were family gathering and garden places.

That's the goal Morgan, who through Ho-Chunk Inc. will act as the developer, gave to the design team. Morgan conceived of the idea for the new village when the 40 acres became available and his organization had the means to purchase it from a non-Indian farmer. Then he attended a conference on non-profits, connections were made through networking and the rest, as they say, is history.

That was a little more than a year ago and now sometime during the month of April ground breaking will take place.