Nonprofit seeks to boost Waunakee’s creative economy


Create Waunakee Inc.

Rona Meri, left, and Natasha Lutes, run Create Waunakee Inc. to improve opportunities for artists and other creative workers.

A nonprofit formed to bolster Waunakee’s creative economy wants to hire more staff and eventually create a center to help more artists and innovative businesses come to the fast-growing village.

The term creative economy refers to such occupations as artists and entrepreneurs.

Launched in the fall, Create Waunakee Inc., led by artist Natasha Lutes and photographer Roni Meri, is the culmination of more than a decade of work started in 2011 by local government officials, businesses, artists, organizations and community members that made up a task force called the Creative Economy Initiative.

Lutes, who has lived in the village for 14 years, said, “We were a bit of a bedroom community” back then.

Todd Schmidt, village of Waunakee administrator, said he remembers looking into economic opportunities in Waunakee back then. He called the village in 2011 “quiet.”

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“I thought that our village was full of these really interesting creative people and businesses and organizations, but they were all under this crest layer — running under the radar and not interacting with one another,” he said. According to data from the village of Waunakee, there are between 80 and 100 of what it classifies as “creative businesses” in the municipality.

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The task force is comprised of members of the Waunakee Community School District, the Waunakee Area Chamber of Commerce and the Waunakee Economic Development Commission, along with local artists, businesses and residents, Schmidt said.

In November 2017, the task force consulted the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at UW-Madison for recommendations the initiative could execute. One of those ideas was the formation of a nonprofit to lead the creative economy efforts, and Schmidt said Lutes and Meri were the ideal candidates to lead that nonprofit.

“I am excited to be part of what this could become,” Meri said.

Now, after years of research and putting together art-themed events and markets, Create Waunakee Inc. envisions having a brick-and-mortar building in the heart of the village that Lutes and Meri said could include an art gallery, space for a makers market and studios for artists to sell their work.

Notable art-themed events those now involved with Create Waunakee Inc. helped create over the years include an annual public art project called Art on Main, started in 2015. The first event called for goat sculptures, and the most recent, art pieces that represent the seasons.

In 2021, the village held its first Waunakee Artisan Market, an annual event that features juried exhibitions at Schumacher Farm Park. The Create Waunakee Inc. website lists several more artsy events that its leaders have had a hand in shaping.

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Meanwhile, more fundraising is needed before a brick-and-mortar space can become a reality.

Create Waunakee Inc., currently run by five volunteer board members, with Lutes and Meri president and vice president, also needs money to hire paid staff. A volunteer advisory board, some village officials and community members also support the nonprofit’s cause, Lutes said.

Lutes said the organization received an anonymous $15,000 matching donation for Create Waunakee Inc.’s first-ever gala, to be held in February at the Waunakee Public Library. The nonprofit also has sponsorships from local organizations and businesses. People can either volunteer or donate to the nonprofit through the Create Waunakee Inc. website.

Tickets for the February event are $80.

“Thanks to the generosity of in-kind donations, we are able to keep expenses low, so a higher percentage of the money raised will be used to support Create Waunakee Inc. initiatives,” Lutes said. “We are hoping our community will support our goals through this fundraiser, allowing us to move closer to our long-term goals of hiring staff and providing a permanent home for Create Waunakee Inc.”

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