Posted 8 a.m. Monday, March 22, 2021

Students in Dan Plunkett’s REC 351 class are working with city officials and other local stakeholders to gauge public opinion toward plans for an indoor tennis complex at Green Island Park. The partnership is a kickoff to UWL’s new Community Engaged Learning program, which matches faculty experts and their students with organizations working to address issues in the community.

Community engaged learning puts ball in students’ court

UW-La Crosse students are playing a pivotal role in the city of La Crosse’s next big project: an indoor tennis complex at Green Island Park.

Students in Dan Plunkett’s REC 351 class worked with city officials and other local stakeholders to organize a series of public meetings this spring, as they gather input on everything from possible programming to membership fees to the overall need for the project.

The class is a kickoff to UWL’s new Community Engaged Learning program, which matches faculty experts and their students with organizations working to address issues in the community.

Gauging public sentiment toward the indoor tennis complex, Plunkett says, will provide students many real-world, high-impact learning experiences.

“When engaging the public on issues, it’s important to listen to different perspectives,” he notes. “Being able to lead a conversation with a group of people who may have differing views, and keeping that conversation moving forward productively, can be challenging even for experienced professionals. A real-world project like this gives students an opportunity to demonstrate they have the ability to listen to the public, and describe verbally and in writing the various perspectives that might exist regarding an issue.”

On Feb. 18, Plunkett’s students met with a small group of stakeholders to ask questions and gain insight into the project.

The students are tasked with collecting public feedback on several important issues, including the cost and funding model for the project, the impact on parking in the local neighborhood, and the ability of different user groups to co-exist in the new facility.

Stakeholders say the indoor tennis complex would be a great addition to the city, giving residents and tourists a state-of-the-art facility in which to gather and exercise. 

“My interest is making sure we have indoor tennis in our community,” explains Kevin Roop, a local attorney and avid tennis player. “It attracts people to the Coulee Region just like hiking trails or the river or other outdoor amenities. From a socioeconomic perspective, people want to live in communities that have these things.”

Adds Kim Blum, athletic director at UW-La Crosse: “We know there’s a lot of need in the community, but that’s not enough. We need to have data.”

That’s where the students come in.

From March 17 to March 25, in partnership with the city, the class will host four public meetings during which community members can ask questions and share their thoughts:

  • March 17, 6-8 p.m.
  • March 18 3-5 p.m.
  • March 24, 6-8 p.m.
  • March 25, 6-8 p.m.

All of the meetings will be held at the Black River Beach Neighborhood Center (1433 Rose St.) and livestreamed via Zoom. More information can be found at  www.facebook.com/LCTennisPublicMeetings.

The class is also conducting four focus groups, one geared toward each of the following interest groups: the La Crosse community, the broader Coulee Region, the Powell-Poage-Hamilton neighborhood, and UWL stakeholders interested in tennis.

Senior Matt Colwell prepares to ask a question while meeting with local stakeholders about the Green Island Park indoor tennis complex.

Matt Colwell, a senior majoring in recreation management, says this assignment has been a great introduction to civic engagement and community collaboration.

"REC 351 has been an amazing opportunity to get hands-on experience in the civic engagement process,” he says. “It is extremely rewarding to know that our involvement is going to have real impact on recreation opportunities in our community, and I cannot think of a better way to learn about civic engagement."

Added Sara Slaten, another senior in the program: “It's cool to have a chance to meet people in the community and work with them on a project that I would not otherwise be involved in. This class has definitely taught me the importance of clear communication and good organization when working with the public and our stakeholders.”

In the future, UWL’s Community Engagement Office hopes to incorporate more Community Engaged Learning experiences, touching on a wider variety of subject areas.

Lisa Klein, community engagement coordinator, says community-engaged learning is mutually beneficial — providing students with transformative educational opportunities, and providing community partners with a team of students and faculty who can drive positive change.

"The Community Engaged Learning program is an effort to increase opportunities for future projects and offer a well-coordinated and communicated partnership," she says. "UWL is already very involved in community projects, like the Green Island partnership. This new program will give community agencies access to the university by using the UWL website to connect and explore potential future partnerships."