Just mowing along

PHIL BURKART MOWS the lawn at the Town Square Community Center. He started taking care of the grass in 2012 to reduce costs and is doing it again this year to help out amid the COVID-19 pandemic. submitted photo

by Joe Schulz

If you walked through downtown Green Lake on a bright summer day in 2012, there’s a chance you saw Phil Burkart mowing the Town Square Community Center’s lawn.

Eight years later, he’s still helping in whatever way he can.

In the early days, Town Square was a scrappy, upstart non-profit, working to transform a dilapidated courthouse into a vibrant community center.

“We had no budget; we started with nothing,” board member Burkart said of the early days. “We paid $1 for the building from the county and we inherited $50,000 of [utility] bills before we ever had anything going in here.”

At the time, to cut costs for landscaping the property, Burkart and other volunteers handled mulching, watering, trimming bushes, raking and mowing the lawn.

To help Town Square landscape its city block-sized property, Green Lake resident Orlo Bierman donated an old John Deere riding lawn mower, which Burkart used about once a week.

Over the years, as Town Square evolved to become a hub of activity in Green Lake, it was able to hire private firms to complete the landscaping in the summer. 

“We started with a very, very small budget but a solid business plan, and we’ve grown the community center according to that plan, step by step,” Burkart said. “When the building belonged to the county, tax dollars paid the utility bills and upkeep. But today, no tax dollars are used to support the Town Square Community Center.”

While Town Square celebrated eight years of serving the community Tuesday, Aug. 11, Burkart noted the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the non-profit to return to its roots. 

“This year is in some ways kind of like eight years ago, where we have the same ‘roll up your sleeves and figure out a way to get it done’ attitude that we had back then,” Burkart said. 

When he looked at the community center’s budget this year, Burkart decided to take the lawn mower out of storage to save money because the COVID-19 pandemic has dried up the non-profit’s revenue.

“Town Square relies on community donations to operate and fills in the rest of the budget with income from events like bingo,” he said. “This year, with important sources of income like bingo and all of our programming canceled or scaled back dramatically, the budget shrunk dramatically. But the bills still needed to be paid, so I’m back to mowing the lawn.” 

In addition, Burkart has been collecting items to auction off to help raise funds for Town Square and he plans to host Harvest Fest Bingo outside on Mill Pond Terrace. 

PHIL BURKART HAUNTS bingo players during a spooktacular event at Town Square. Burkart has been known to get into the spirit as part of Town Square’s bingo nights. He calls off the numbers at the events. submitted photo

Before the non-profit purchased the building, it served as the Green Lake County Courthouse for more than 100 years. 

After the county moved out in 2011, community members crafted a plan to transform the property into a community center that would offer arts, culture and fitness services. 

“The original concept was ‘The Center of Arts and Innovation.’ That’s what we called it before Town Square, and we’ve kind of stayed with that original concept,” Burkart said. “We’ve done a lot with economic innovation, we do a lot with the arts  — whether it’s culinary arts or performance arts.”

The group approached the county with a proposal, and after months of deliberation, the county decided that Town Square’s proposal was the most likely to succeed while benefiting the community.

In April 2012, the county agreed to sell the vacant facility to the non-profit for $1 and a month later, the Green Lake county clerk gave the group the keys to the building. 

Over the next three months, a slew of volunteers tore out old carpeting, removed old furniture, pried off plywood walls, as well as painted, scrubbed and polished the entire building.

“There’s a little blood, sweat and tears still in the building from the volunteer groups,” Burkart said. “We had painting crews, every bit of carpeting had to get removed and we auctioned off all of the old office furniture.”

When the community center opened Aug. 11, 2012, it housed a yoga and pilates studio, a lobby art gallery, the Lester Schwartz Gallery, a commercial kitchen and the Green Lake Association offices. 

Over the years, Town Square has continued to add new programs and partner with new community organizations to provide services, as it grew to include multiple retailers and a fitness center inside and a farmers market outside on Fridays. 

In 2015, Town Square merged with the Downtown Green Lake Renewal Project to form Green Lake Renewal, the non-profit owner of the Town Square campus.

Prior to the merger, the Downtown Green Lake Renewal Project worked on beautification projects to make Green Lake more attractive and accessible. 

Burkart believes the merger allowed both organizations to utilize their talents in revitalizing the community. 

One of the biggest accomplishments was executing the construction of Mill Pond Terrace, which created an outdoor event space overlooking the Dartford Mill Pond with the help of more than 400 donors.

“That was a huge undertaking,” Burkart said. “There were hundreds of hundreds of donations, I think there’s over 200 names on the donor wall.”

Burkart believes Town Square’s continued evolution is a testament to “the power of community.” 

“It’s like more people have become part of the family,” he said. “The community center has really formed a community of people working together to make Green Lake better.”

In terms of the future of Town Square, Burkart says it took a page out of Disney’s playbook, believing the community center to be “something that’s never going to be complete.”

He noted the community center is readying the facility for the addition of the new Green Lake Boys & Girls Club location opening this fall. 

Overall, Burkart is excited and optimistic about the future of the community center. 

“The building was built in 1899, so it was a little over 100 years old when we started,” he said. “We want this beautiful historic building to serve the community for the next 100 years.”