Before: At left, Wendell Mayor Rebecca Vipperman and City Councilor Shaun Spencer stand in front of the vacant lot that became Hub City Park. After: At right, Hub City Park is mostly complete and is expected to be finished this fall.

For Rebecca Vipperman, becoming mayor was all just one big, happy accident.

Like so many young people raised in small Idaho towns, she loved her childhood growing up in the farming community of Wendell. But despite being a fourth-generation Wendell resident, or perhaps because of it, Vipperman also felt an unrelenting desire to explore life beyond the small town she loved.

After graduating from Wendell High School, she attended College of Southern Idaho before packing her bags for college in Boise. For 14 years she lived and worked away from Wendell — and away from Idaho — in cities in the Western U.S.

Wendell Mayor Rebecca Vipperman

But in 2016, the tug that pulled her away reversed course. Vipperman, now married and with three young kids, felt drawn back to the quiet and closeness of Wendell and the many people she loved who still called it home.

“I missed it badly,” she explains. “I missed the sense of community at the Friday night basketball games and community events. I missed seeing my parents and siblings and cousins at summer barbecues. I missed it all.”

So when Vipperman’s husband, Justin, secured a job as a professor at the College of Southern Idaho, that was all the impetus they needed to pack up their house in Portland and move home.

Vipperman, whose background is in property management, planned to engage in volunteer and community work and primarily focus on raising her kids. But in 2019, when an opening on the Wendell City Council opened up, she decided that would be a good opportunity to serve the community she loved.

About two years later, the mayoral election only had one candidate registered, and Vipperman’s mother — and fellow Wendell citizen — heavily encouraged her to run.

“I sort of registered to run for mayor on a whim,” she says. “I was the only sitting councilperson without a full-time job and just wanted to give people another option. I never thought for a minute I would actually be elected. Becoming mayor was a complete accident. But a happy accident!”

Once sworn in, Mayor Vipperman turned her attention to what she calls “quick wins,” actions she and the city council could take to have immediate impact. She saw her enthusiastic naivety as a strategic advantage.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, so I didn’t know what I couldn’t do,” she says. “But I had to hit the ground running. You open up the mayoral email inbox and there’s a problem? Well, you just have to solve it even if you start out not knowing how.”

A few months into her new role, Councilmen BJ Marshall and Shaun Spencer brought one idea to her attention: apply for a new pilot grant from the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health called The Community Project.

The Community Project

The Community Project is an innovative grant designed to address one of the hidden drags on community health — social splintering.

“During and after the pandemic, mayors repeatedly told us that their communities were increasingly divided on a host of issues,” explains Courtney Frost, senior program officer at the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health. “They were seeing basic civility decrease and tension increasing, which is not healthy on its face, but also makes it difficult to work together to solve the challenges that could contribute to community health.” 

As Idaho’s only nonprofit foundation dedicated to addressing the root causes of health in the state, this lack of social cohesion, as experts call it, was increasingly recognized as a foundational issue for their larger mission.

To address it, The Foundation launched The Community Project, which provides the funding, technical expertise, and training that encourages residents to see themselves as neighbors again without being prescriptive or preachy.

“It’s all about reminding ourselves that despite our differences, there is a lot we share, including wanting our communities to be healthy, happy places for ourselves and our children,” Frost says.

Recipients of the grant receive expert guidance on how to listen and communicate with their entire community, including those who often remain outside of civic discourse such as immigrants and new arrivals. This community engagement effort is supported by $85,000 to build a community gathering place.

Throughout the effort the visible, easy-to-understand construction of the community gathering place acts as a focal point for positive interactions with various segments of the community.

For Wendell and Vipperman, being selected in the inaugural year of The Community Project was game-changing.

“Our eyes were opened to what is possible,” Mayor Vipperman says. “The Foundation team mapped out a path for us to start communicating with the public, and helped us think differently about how we engage others and even how we view our town.”

“We looked at everything…”

Early on in the process, The Foundation team identified that a stronger, better defined community brand and communications training would be useful tools for the city, which has no communications staff.

“We looked at everything the community was doing and there was just so much that was going right,” Frost says. “Our role is not to come in as outsiders and tell the community what to do. Our role is to listen and see how we can support them.”

After speaking with stakeholders and surveying members of the community, it became clear that Wendell wanted to respect and honor their history while simultaneously working towards a brighter future.

Part of Wendell’s history is its long-time moniker “The Hub City of the Magic Valley,” given because of the city’s central location and confluence of transportation lines. Inspired by this, but also keenly aware of the increase in young families moving and often “boomeranging” back to the city, The Foundation team developed a lighthearted tagline and corresponding artwork that pays homage to this history: “Love the Hub.”

“We’re a community of hardworking, pretty serious people,” Vipperman says. “I wasn’t sure if this light-hearted take would resonate — but it did! People have loved it.”

The “Love the Hub” messaging was immediately rolled out via social media posts and posters in city hall highlighting the many things citizens were passionate about.

According to the mayor, when she began sharing it on social media — yes, the mayor runs the city social media accounts — the reaction was bigger than anything they had done in years. “People loved it,” she explains. “Most posts have dozens of shares and comments, with many people sharing their own stories and photos. It really started bringing people together around their love for Wendell.”

This small step of embracing a fresh community identity, backed by training and instruction on how to use it, gave Mayor Vipperman even more confidence to make positive but pragmatic changes.

New Insights, New Park

As part of their successful application to The Community Project, Mayor Vipperman and Councilman Spencer had identified the empty field at the southernmost portion of South Hagerman Street.

“This side of town didn’t have easy or walkable access to a park,” Councilman Spencer explains. “This felt like an opportunity to get things moving, to help build momentum for other projects that can build our sense of community.”

But what kind of park should it be? What features should it include? What would actually garner the desired use?

In the spirit of listening and improving social cohesion, the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health team, along with Vipperman and Spencer, set out to solicit community input. They set up community engagement sessions in places where they could learn from the widest swath of residents possible: a high school basketball game, a senior center luncheon, and the entrance to Simmerly’s, the iconic grocery store located in downtown Wendell.

“We learned so much,” Mayor Vipperman reports. “But most importantly, we learned that when people feel heard they have more pride and more engagement. It’s important to connect with citizens proactively instead of just reacting when there is some sort of problem.”

Community engagement took place at a few locations in the city, including at a high school basketball game.

While the context of these engagement sessions were each a bit different, they all included illustrations of potential layouts for the park, images of potential features, ranging from natural pathways to playsets, and the results from early community surveys. Community members reviewed these details with The Community Project team and provided nuanced insights into how this new gathering place could serve the community.

“People were reminded how great Wendell is, but also that there are still improvements to be made, and we could come together to make them happen,” Vipperman recalls.

From these engagement sessions, a clear picture for the park emerged. Mayor Vipperman and Councilman Spencer worked with the rest of the council to allocate supporting funds for the grant, and began finalizing construction drawings based on the community feedback. And on July 25, 2023, ground was broken on the new Wendell Hub City Park. Construction on the park is ongoing, much of it being completed by the city’s public works team. The park is expected to be completed this fall.

“This is about much more than a park,” Spencer says. “This is about a community and a community’s leadership committing to listening, collaborating, and believing they can shape their community. It’s a positive step. My hope is that it can be momentum building. You can be a modest town and still have things that bring people together.”

For the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation, Wendell represents a success story for their catalytic approach to philanthropy.

“The Community Project isn’t a silver bullet,” Foundation program officer Frost notes. “But if it can improve the trajectory of a community’s ability to bring the diverse members of their community together and engage them? Well, then the door is open to impact other critical community health issues that can’t be addressed without these skills.”

According to Mayor Vipperman, The Community Project is already having an impact.

“When we applied for The Community Project, I assumed we’d just get a park, but we got so much more,” Vipperman says. “I’m so grateful for the skills and tools that helped me become a better Mayor. Wendell deserves it all.”

City of Wendell employees at the groundbreaking ceremony for Hub City Park.