A La Crosse entrepreneur and community organizer is facing questions about his use of thousands of dollars in donations earmarked for community improvement projects.
Andrew Londre, a former La Crosse County supervisor and founder of a local crowd-funding project known as SOUP, admitted this week to redirecting money donated to fund student-generated projects to pay for a video promoting a handful of local businesses, including his own.
In October 2015, Londre used the online site Kickstarter to raise money for 10 civic projects proposed by business students at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Among the proposals: an ice skating rink at Riverside Park, solar-powered waste bins for the downtown and new clothes for homeless people to wear to job interviews.
By December, the campaign had raised more than $11,000 from 96 backers.
On Tuesday, Londre posted a 4,179-word update detailing reasons the students had been unable to see their projects through before informing donors that he had instead used the money to help fund a local segment of “Ambitious Adventures,” a video series that aims to highlight the work of young entrepreneurs.
The creators of the show, which is to be distributed through web streaming services, said they planned to highlight businesses in half a dozen cities while promoting the idea that millennials can change the world. Producer Brandon Adams said the La Crosse segment will be available in March and features Londre, along with the founders of Pearl Street Brewery, Wyatt Bikes and Full Circle Supply.
“The funds originally raised were meant to support efforts that will promote more arts and culture in La Crosse, promoting a biking and appreciation for the outdoors, promote the use of business in a way that’s a benefit to the broader community, promoting the growth of new businesses owned by local people, and promoting a greater sense of community in the home we share,” Londre wrote in his Kickstarter update. “Now, millions of people will get to see how truly awesome our city is.”
Contacted Thursday, Londre declined to be interviewed or to answer questions about the project. Londre said his “primary responsibility” is to his project funders and that he would provide more information through updates to the Kickstarter pages.
Londre said late Saturday that he had secured a personal loan for $8,500 and would work to refund any donors who want their money returned.
Kickstarter does not list the donors who contributed to the project, but Altra Federal Credit Union put up $2,000 in matching funds. Business loan officer Walt Smanski said he learned that the funds had been re-purposed through the Kickstarter page update Tuesday night.
“We wished we would have had the opportunity to work with him on redirecting the funds,” said Cheryl Dutton, vice president of marketing. “We did the match and donation based on what the original purpose of the funding was for. … We would certainly have helped redirect the funds in the community to do good projects like the UW-L students were proposing to do.”
‘The Wild West of fundraising’
In 2015, Londre launched a monthly funding effort known as SOUP, events where people pay $5 for a bowl of soup and bread and listen to proposals for community improvement projects. At the end, the money goes to the winning idea.
Kelly Nowicki, who teaches business classes at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said she approached Londre about letting her students help out.
Eleven ideas were whittled to four, which were presented at the October gathering; the winners received more than $2,000 to put bar codes on signs in Hixon Forest to allow hikers to download maps to their cellphones.
Londre then came up with the idea to use Kickstarter to fund the remaining ideas.
“Andrew said he wanted all 10 student ideas to be implemented,” Nowicki said.
Nowicki said she warned Londre that the students would be graduating in December or May and might not be around to follow through. Only one project was completed before the end of the school year.
In July, Nowicki said, she was trying to help another student complete a proposal to put a mural on the wall of a downtown business when she spoke to Londre.
“That’s when Andrew said to me there is no money,” she said. “He used it for ‘Ambitious Adventures.’”
Nowicki said she was concerned but didn’t know what to do.
“I was concerned about the ramifications of not supporting him,” she said. “I didn’t feel comfortable disagreeing with Andrew publicly.”
Kickstarter says there are no guarantees projects will come to fruition.
“Backers must understand that Kickstarter is not a store,” the site warns users. “When you back a project, you’re helping to create something new — not ordering something that already exists. There’s a chance something could happen that prevents the creator from being able to finish the project as promised.”
The company did not respond to interview requests.
Lisa Schiller, director of investigations and media relations for the Better Business Bureau in Wisconsin, said crowdfunding has inherent advantages: “It provides immediate assistance. It helps donors make an emotional connection to the cause. It provides donors with a sense of impact.”
But online sites have little ability to vet projects or to account for how money is spent.
“It’s kind of like the Wild West of fundraising,” Schiller said.
Allen Kantowski is a downtown business manager who last week posted a message on his Facebook page questioning Londre’s use of funds, although he did not contribute to the campaign.
“I have absolutely no stake into it other than the fact that I don’t like to see hard-earned money leave our community for something other than it was intended for,” Kantowski said. “I couldn’t be quiet about it.”
Some have also questioned whether other funds have been used as intended, including the $24,465 raised for a second Kickstarter campaign to rebrand the city’s Caledonia Street business district as Uptowne.
Londre said none of that money went toward the video.
North La Crosse Business Association president Nick Roush, who partnered with Londre’s firm Urbanlocity to hold a three-day brainstorming summit, said the planning phase of the project is actually under budget, and any remaining funds will go toward implementing the proposals that emerge from the report.
“From what I see the funds that came through Kickstarter have been in direct accordance with the proposal,” Roush said. “I don’t think dime one has gone to anything but that project.”
Note: This story has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly stated the amount of money redirected from the Kickstarter campaign to Ambitious Adventures. Londre announced late on Dec. 17 that he had taken out a loan for $8,500 to replenish funds used for the video. It was not immediately clear how that money would be used.