By Judith Munson —
Brent P. Smith began working at the Johns, Flaherty & Collins law firm shortly after graduating from UW-Madison in 1978. Something about the firm and the city must have suited him. Forty-one years later, he’s still serving both.
Smith serves on several boards in the area, with his work as president of the La Crosse Center’s board of directors getting an extra dose of attention lately as the board spearheads a $42 million expansion and renovation of the center.
This dedication to community service is instilled in everyone at the law firm, says Smith. “We tell young people coming to work for us right out of law school that giving back to the community—outside of the practice of law—is something we strongly encourage, and it was an example for me when I started.”
Along with the La Crosse Center project, Smith says working with the Family & Children’s Center was especially meaningful to him. “The opportunity to help young people who have encountered a variety of issues early in life and help them at a critical point—before they enter the job market and go out into the world on their own, improving their chances of becoming more productive in society and successful in life—is very satisfying.”
When he’s not litigating cases in court or preparing for them at the office, Smith’s lunch and after-work hours are often spent meeting with a wide spectrum of community stakeholders. “I feel a responsibility to give back. If I feel I’m making some difference—even if it’s just a small difference—it’s worth it as we’re making the community a better place to live.”
Smith can attest to just how far the area has come in regard to quality of life. “It was hard. If you walked through downtown La Crosse in the early 1990s, you’d see some empty storefronts.”
The revitalization of downtown is all-encompassing, he says. It’s not just about a few new bars and restaurants. It’s about a multitude of new businesses, new jobs and new living opportunities. “People who visit here after a long absence can’t believe the change. Our community and our county have become models for others. I often hear, ‘Wow, things are really happening here—La Crosse has really taken off.’ There’s a lot of positive energy here and they feel it.”
A good measure of this energy is attributed to the growing number of young professionals who want to work and live downtown. They’re finding La Crosse to be a welcoming city with opportunities not readily available elsewhere.
“I tell young people there are opportunities to take leadership roles here, to serve on boards, whereas in other cities they’d have to wait years to get these leadership skills. They get to connect with others in leadership and contribute at a decision-making level.”
The journey from having pockets of abandoned commercial space to becoming a model of revitalization to the rest of the Midwest is long, slow and not easy. “I give a lot of credit to the foresight of our county and city leaders 25, 30 years ago. This doesn’t happen overnight.”
For example, says Smith, the opening of the La Crosse Center in 1980 sparked new economic activity, as the proposed expansion will do once again. “I think when this is done, hopefully in 2020, we’ll see a tremendous positive impact with more events, more conferences, more tax revenue generated for the city.”
It’s unlikely La Crosse would have reached model status without the efforts of Smith and hundreds of others like him, day after day, decade after decade. He provides an excellent outlook for others who’d like to contribute.
“Respect and listen to others, make a difference in your community, and do so with a sense of humor.”