MARQUETTE - Members of the Sawyer Community Alliance - an all-volunteer group of area residents that works to improve the community at KI Sawyer - have plenty to be proud of.
In its five years of existence, the alliance has constructed a playground at Little Trout Lake and created an annual fishing event there, established a neighborhood watch, built a community garden and organized annual area clean-ups.
Alliance Chairman Bob Struck cites the work of the roughly 30 dedicated volunteers who attend each of the alliance's monthly meetings, as well as the effort of hundreds who've helped with each of the alliance's many projects.
Above, Kids work on the planting beds at the new K.I. Sawyer Community Garden. K.I. Sawyer School students recently donated some of the vegetables they raised at the new community garden to the Gwinn Senior Center, which helped them with the original planting. Right, Volunteers rake out planting beds at the K.I. Sawyer Community Garden during a recent work bee. (Photos courtesy of K.I. sawyer Community Garden)
"We're making the things that we don't have," Struck said.
The alliance was created to help combat the scattered nature of the smaller volunteer groups that popped up following closure of the U.S. Air Force base at KI Sawyer in 1995. With no common goal and little participation between groups, not much was getting done.
At the time, Struck was a Marquette County commissioner, and Sawyer was part of his constituency. So he helped bring the groups together to form the Sawyer Community Alliance, a group with roughly 100 goals ranging from recruiting jobs to tearing down old, abandoned buildings to creating safe places for kids.
So far, Struck said the alliance has accomplished or is currently working on 41 of those goals.
A major goal was bringing together officials from both West Branch and Forsyth townships - the base is split between the two - and from Marquette County to help create a more streamlined and organized governance structure.
That partnership has earned Sawyer residents who live in Forsyth Township their very own polling place, which will be open inside the fire station for the Aug. 5 primary election. It will mark the first time those residents can cast their votes at Sawyer in the community's history.
All of these things, Struck said, cast a positive light on an area that has found itself with a reputation it can't seem to shake, a reputation for high crime and low community-interest among residents.
But the alliance is hoping to counteract that reputation, one successful project at a time.
"You can't control what someone on the outside thinks," Struck said. "Forget the reputation. Just start working on a new one."
One of the biggest successful projects the alliance has been a part of is the demolition of three dozen dilapidated structures near the K.I. Sawyer Elementary School.
The demolition was made possible through a $486,000 grant from the state's Blight Elimination Program. The Marquette County Land Bank Authority wrote the grant, and Anne Giroux, authority chairwoman, said the alliance contributed to the grant application's success.
The alliance had already boarded up broken out windows and doors on the residences, which had remained vacant since the base closed. It also wrote letters in support of the demolition.
Now, all that remains of what was once a dangerous eyesore is a grassy field.
And with so many positive things under its belt, the alliance is more ready than ever to roll up its sleeves and dig into the 59 goals that remain on its list.
In the coming months, the alliance - in partnership with
Forsyth Township - will reopen the shuttered youth center formerly run by the Marquette County Salvation Army, which was forced to close the doors to help deal with more than $400,000 in debts.
It's also working to construct ballfields at Sawyer, giving kids another after-school and summertime activity option.
Helping in that endeavor is Liana Graves, 4H coordinator for Marquette and Alger counties.
Graves was told about the alliance by a member of the group. Intrigued, she decided to stop by a meeting. The potential was immediately evident.
"They're a really dynamic group and very grassroots," Graves said. "They just have an understanding of what's going on out at Sawyer and are really trying to bring opportunity to that area, so it just seems like a perfect fit for my goals."
Using her professional expertise and experiences, Graves said she's looking into possible grant funding for the ballfield as well as for 4H to purchase fishing equipment which could be used by the alliance during its annual fishing event at Little Trout Lake. Graves said she hoped a 4H presence at Sawyer could increase its participation rate in the program.
It's just one example of the mutually beneficial relationship a partnership between the alliance and 4H could have.
And though the alliance is being noted by local groups and officials, it's also garnering some national attention, forging a new partnership with the National Leadership Academy for the Public's Health.
This group works with struggling communities across the country, offering them technical assistance through a Community Team.
Sabine Martin, head of the community team working with the alliance, said it was the very problems facing the community that made it stand out as great place to partner with.
"We did a large visioning workshop with them last spring," Martin said. "It's just an intriguing community, being situated on a defunct Air Force base, they have all these issues with, it's not really a grown community."
The community team can offer assistance in a number of ways, from something as simple as showing people how to get soil properly tested for a community garden to something as complicated as coordinating efforts to earn grant funding for a project.
"What we're really hoping to do is give them the tools so that this whole thing becomes sustainable, that they can move on and that they will be able to have a handle on where all these resources are they have to accomplish their goals," Martin said.
Struck said with all the successes in the last five years, the people living at Sawyer are learning how to take care of business.
"We've empowered people to assume responsibility and control for where they want to live," Struck said. "It's the power of civic participation."
The alliance meets on the first of each mont inside the Heritage Air Museum.
For more information on the alliance, or to stay up to date on its progress, visit www.sawyercommunityalliance.org.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.