A newly formed group wants to foster a positive image of Hokah and counter what they see as some of the acrimony that has marked recent debates in the town.
Hokah Forever held its two meetings in October, and the organization had over 40 people in attendance at both, said Ben Spanjers, one of the group’s founders. Hokah Forever formed shortly after controversial “Sell the School” signs started popping up on the front lawns of some Hokah residents. The signs appeared around the same time the La Crescent-Hokah School District was attempting to pass a new operating levy.
“The signs were the last straw,” said Ben Spanjers. “Everywhere you went, it was what people were talking about,” said Michelle Spanjers, another founder of the group, about the yard signs. “Our town was defined by “sell the school” signs, which is ridiculous.”
Karla Hunt, also part of Hokah Forever, said she was asked at work and in other towns what was going with the signs. Ben Spanjers said most people opposed to the city purchasing the old school building for $1 last May thought the deal was done behind their backs, while he said others had misconceptions about the building raising property taxes for Hokah residents.
“This is all just small town politics,” said Michelle Spanjers, of how rumors about the old school building spread throughout the town. She said she didn’t want the negativity around the signs to define Hokah and hopes the new group can paint a more positive image of the town.
“I’m proud of this town,” said Michelle Spanjers. “And I’m not going to let it become a mockery.”
When Michelle Spanjers first reached out to residents to form the Hokah Forever group, she said she got plenty of positive feedback.
“One of my ground rules at the first meeting was there is no negativity,” said Michelle Spanjers. “We are not talking about selling the school, we’re talking about how to move forward.”
Ben Spanjers added that Hokah forever is not about the school building, but rather bringing the town together. Along with spreading positivity, Hokah Forever exists to help the community move forward.
“You’re starting to see two sides to this town,” said Hokah Forever member Heith Hunt. “There’s people that want to see it move forward and get better, and people who are just stuck in their ways, and don’t want things to change.”
“We do understand that people have the right to their own opinion,” added Michelle Spanjers. “So it’s not that we’re against people with a certain opinion. We’re just trying to move forward.”
Heith Hunt said that the presence of Hokah Forever members at city council meetings has helped to decrease the negativity that group members say has consumed council meetings of late.
The attendance of Hokah Forever meetings is testament to how many people were ready for change, said Michelle Spanjers, “It was crazy the amount of people that came to the first meeting,” said Michelle Spanjers. “People that maybe didn’t feel comfortable coming to council meetings because of the negativity and firestorm that came from them.”
At the first meeting, Hokah Forever members brainstormed things they could potentially help bring to the town to strengthen it, including to bring back the Hokah Fun Days festival.
“We’re trying to bring things to Hokah that will utilize what we have here,” said Heith Hunt. “We’ve got the Root River that comes through here, Thompson Creek and (Como) Falls.”
Committee members also expressed that Hokah Forever is about bringing family fun to the town. The first gathering the group helped coordinate was the Christmas in the Park event on Dec. 10, which they partnered with the Hokah Lions Club to put on. Christmas in the Park featured a raffle, winter clothing collection and food drive to support the local food shelf.
“You’re going to see a lot of good things happen in Hokah in the future,” said Ben Spanjers. “Our dream is to get this town where it needs to be and hopefully other small towns will reach out to us for help.”