Elaine Willman has been director of community development and tribal affairs in the village of Hobart since January 2008. She’s the author of “Going to Pieces: The Dismantling of the United States of America” and has served as chairwoman of the board for the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, or CERA, on which she is still active. Willman talked with Insight Associate Editor Nikki Kallio about her work in Hobart.
I came to Hobart because of a book that I had written on Indian policy. Hobart had very serious issues in the early 2000s with aggressive Indian policy. My whole background is working with small governments in economic development, so it was a perfect fit for what they needed – one person who could address Indian policy and community and economic development. It’s been an amazingly wonderful fit.
I had my own consulting business in Toppenish, Wash., and I served as an elected official there. I left everything to come here because I believed very much in the local elected officials that were committed to protecting their community, and I had a very high regard for all the tribes in the country, and the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin has a very good reputation. I thought if there was a place we could solve difficult problems, it’s probably in Hobart.
I am of Cherokee ancestry – my mother and grandmother were enrolled members, and my husband is Shoshone. So this is about government decision-making, which is separate from the issue of respect for all cultures.
When I arrived in 2008, the tribe had packaged up 3,000 acres of parcels to remove from the property tax base. That would’ve taken one-fourth of the community of Hobart’s property tax base away. It’s a very large community – it’s the whole western side of Brown County, 33 square miles, but it relies almost entirely on its property tax. We started objecting to and legally opposing any more land removed from the village. That process started in 2008 and languished in the courts until May 9 of this year. All 3,000 acres were sent back to the tribe and to the regional Bureau of Indian Affairs office to start all over, because they had very inadequately or not at all followed their own regulations. We were able to preserve that property tax base. At the same time, I was working to bring Centennial Centre, the economic development piece, to life.
Centennial Centre was launched on Aug. 12, 2009. It was a big 350-acre soybean field and now we’ve created a tax increment district, and we’ve had construction workers on the job every day since 2009. Now over 500 folks live out there, and 300 workers are out there every day – not to mention the construction workers that are out there all the time, and it is growing so rapidly that we are the fastest growing community in Brown County. Hobart was the second in the state for new home building permits.
All of this was done in the darkest of the economy – 2008 through 2012. I think when there’s an obstacle like a dark economy, you don’t have a choice, you learn to just move forward anyway.
We have quite a number of homes – a real diversity of homes, which Hobart really needed. Now we’re building the second big neighborhood out there, and we have a new assisted living facility. That has stimulated the next phase, which is commercial.
We’re specifically seeking a good mid-size grocer, restaurants, barber shop, a health-and-fitness center – just the daily needs. A place for breakfast, lunch and dinner. An ATM machine, gas stations. We need all the services out there.
We have a great in-house team; they allowed me to streamline the in-house approval permitting process to where we can have a new project in the ground with all that approval and permits within 30 to 45 days if necessary. I think that’s an advantage for small government, much like small business. You can work lean and mean and quicker. I like to call us “nimble.”
We have $53 million in building valuation in the ground right now, another $18 million booked to date thus far and more coming in. We’ve started a second tax increment district in the south. It has $16 million in the ground – so when I say Hobart is the fastest-growing community, we really are.