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Harrop: Finding people to fill empty spaces

A tiny French mountain village with a long name, L’Hospitalet-pres-l’Andorre, has lost half its population over three decades, according to the French newspaper Le Monde. Its name in English would be “The Hospital Near Andorra.” (Andorra is a small principality shoehorned between France and Spain.)

The village can tick off the losses. First the customs office closed, causing the five families whom it supported to leave. (The village’s economy mainly depended on the town’s location on the road to Andorra and some tourism in the Pyrenees mountains.) Other jobs were erased when a dam was automated. Then, barracks housing gendarmes, the local police, moved out of town. Meanwhile, five families dependent on the SCNF, France’s state-owned railway company, were relocated elsewhere.

The population of “L’Hospi” fell to 90. The village had already lost some public services, and there was talk of closing its grade school, which had only 10 students left.

Rural depopulation plagues large parts of France as well as isolated regions of the United States. The tough thing in all these cases is that as people move away, everything else in the village shrinks.

One winter night, a small group of L’Hospi locals got together looking for a solution. They had decided not let their village continue on the path to oblivion. The decided on an obvious response to losing people: Bring more in.

But who? There was a large unused building overlooking the town square. The villagers thought it could make a fine home for single mothers and their children. The mayor agreed.

As elsewhere, families in France headed by unmarried mothers often face a lonely, economically precarious existence. Helping single-parent families recently became one of French President Emmanuel Macron’s priorities.

So sometime this summer, six mothers and their nine children will be moving into the refurbished building, now poetically renamed the Maison de Cimes (House of the Peaks). Not only will the village automatically gain 15 people; nine of them will be children, some filling empty seats at the school. The newcomers will live in a supportive community eager to end its isolation. As the mayor said, the village can help these families rebuild their lives in a peaceful setting.

Now the talk among locals gathering at the Hotel de Puymorens for coffee centers on when the plumbing will be finished, how the electric work is coming along and whether the plasterboard is up. This has become everybody’s business.

One could envision depopulated towns in the rural Plains using some of their vacant buildings as group homes for single-parent families. Much of the rural heartland has excellent schools with empty seats.

Proposals to open empty spaces to new people need not be limited to rural areas. In Burlingame, California, and elsewhere, a declining population of nuns has left convents only partially filled. That led to the idea of opening the unused rooms to millennials.

The project, called Nuns and Nones, has led to a fascinating mix of older sisters and young unmarried men and women, often with outside jobs. The new participants are not necessarily Catholic or tied to any religion. Millennials are the most “unchurched” generation. But many of them are nonetheless spiritual and interested in good works. Both the millennials and the nuns would regard themselves as activists.

With fewer nuns now available to take leadership roles in Catholic hospitals and schools, these institutions increasingly rely on laypeople. What better way to groom some of these future leaders than to share quarters and activities with the nuns?

All these solutions involve small numbers, but that may be their virtue. They depend more on committed communities than big government programs. They benefit all parties. The experiment at L’Hospi is unique. Let’s see what happens.

This week's poll question

This week’s poll question

This week’s question is for parents whose children have smartphones. We want to know how parents monitor their kids’ smartphone use, if at all. Take the poll at The results aren’t scientific.

Last week we asked readers whether Gov. Tony Evers should approve the proposed Ho-Chunk casino in Beloit if the proposal reaches his desk this summer as expected. By a 475-208 vote, respondents favored the casino, believing it would be an “economic development boon” for the area.

Here’s what readers had to say:

Yes. It’s not just a casino. There will be a water park hotel and retail.

  • Beloit will become a destination place like the Dells and other places.

—Mariann Sands Murphy

  • Only hope for Beloit to lose the worst city title. I worked there in the 1980s and ’90s. It’s so worse now.

—Dan Schneider

  • Sen. Tammy Baldwin told us several years ago that Madison would boom because of that casino. Just another lie.

—Rudy McCormick

  • No. Do you all realize what casino gambling does to people, especially those who have any type of addiction? It destroys them. It destroys their finances. It destroys relationships. I’ve seen it happen. Paychecks are cashed and devoured by slot machines. Casinos are not built by winners but by all of you that lose your shirts. YOU buy that casino!

—Christine Sperry

  • A gambling addict like any other addict will find their poison no matter where it is. I know first hand. If you have a problem, seek help. If not, enjoy the benefits at the new casino.

—Ted Kibler

  • Yes, before Rockford gets its proposed casino.

—Gary Barnes

Guest Views: Wisconsin Conservation Congress is remarkable and unique

For anyone who values the importance of direct citizen input in government—and we do—there was an anniversary recently that should not go unnoticed.

The Wisconsin Conservation Congress formally marked its 85th anniversary as delegates gathered in Appleton for its annual convention in a spirited fashion. For decades, the conservation congress has been a sounding board for the state Department of Natural Resources—and a valuable one, at that—in setting and modifying fish and game regulations as well as other conservation issues affecting the lands and waters of the state.

The Congress does so through its annual spring meetings, a vast statewide referendum in April each year in which hunters, fishers and other citizens weigh in on proposed fish and wildlife rules in counties across the state and that input is given to the DNR and its governing Natural Resources Board.

It also offers state outdoors enthusiasts the chance to craft their own proposals and put them to a vote in their home county—if their suggestion wins passage, it goes to an advisory board of the congress; if approved, it can be placed on the statewide ballot the next year.

It is a remarkable and unique setup among the states for policymakers to gain insight into public opinion on issues they are concerned about and translate them into fish and game rule changes.

DNR Secretary Preston Cole, newly appointed by Gov. Tony Evers, lauded the congress for those years of advice at the group’s convention.

“I remind folks that you won’t see this setup anyplace else in the world but Wisconsin,” he told the 300 delegates. “We have to be proud of that fact. This is Wisconsin’s way of doing business as it relates to natural resource management.”

That’s not to say it’s always been a smooth marriage—there have been some contentious encounters and disagreements over the years. Cole referred to them as “times when we have lots of interesting debates.”

Yes, some of those debates roil the congress as well.

The congress rejected a proposed bounty system to pay deer hunters for deer carcasses infected with chronic wasting disease, even though 60 percent of those who took part in this year’s spring hearings approved such a measure.

Disagreements, of course, are bound to happen, particularly in a state with great and closely held traditions of hunting and fishing, and respect for the game, the land and the waters. As always, those game and conservation concerns have to be balanced against sometimes other, competing state interests—agriculture, tourism, business, industry and land ownership.

That can be a difficult process, and the steady input of advice from conservationists and sportsmen in the Wisconsin Conservation Congress have helped the state negotiate it for more than eight decades with remarkable results.

For that, they deserve a wish of “Happy Anniversary” and our thanks.

Other Views: If corporations have rights, so does nature

From the very start of our nation, the most popular forum for debating and shaping our democratic rights was not stately legislative halls, but rowdy beer halls.

Indeed, “pub democracy” remains strong across our country, as is now being shown by a hardy group of democracy rebels in Toledo, Ohio.

The people of this city on the edge of Lake Erie were literally sickened in 2014 when a toxic algae bloom poisoned the lake, which is the source of their drinking water. People were outraged that state officials, who were in the pocket of the polluters, did nothing to protect the lake from more poisoning.

Mulling this over while quaffing beers in a local pub, the rebels hit upon a novel thought: What if Lake Erie could protect itself by asserting its legal right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve?” Thus was born the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which the group proposed as a city charter ballot initiative.

They got double the number of signatures required to put the proposition on February’s ballot, mounted a door-to-door people’s campaign to counter a media blitz partially funded by such giants as Coca-Cola and FedEx—and they won! A whopping 61 percent of Toledo’s voters said “yes” to recognizing legally enforceable rights for the natural world.

Supercilious corporate elites, however, refuse to let such a trifling matter as the will of the people interfere with their sense of entitlement to poison for profit.

So they’ve now gotten top Ohio officials to assert in a court filing that the state is the “proprietor in trust” of Lake Erie. Therefore, claim the officials, local voters have no power to deny so-called corporate “persons” the permission to pollute real people’s water.

Of course, the democracy rebels are not about to back down, so keep up with them at