Time to vote for best of state’s small towns

“Well I was born in a small town
“And I can breathe in a small town
“Gonna die in this small town
“That’s prob’ly where they’ll bury me.”

John Mellencamp is a Hoosier, but his “Small Town” lyrics resonate with a lot of us in Wisconsin who have lived in places that don’t routinely make headlines or are a cause of commotion.

Hundreds of you recently took the time to tell us which communities with less than 15,000 population are the best in Wisconsin. Then a half-dozen of us headed to the Governor’s Mansion in Madison, where first lady Jessica Doyle graciously welcomed us and joined in discussion about how to condense the number of nominations.

This was hard, serious and fun work that could have gone on for days, and we don’t pretend to have a conclusive “best of” list. Our homeland is rich with distinctive communities, decent people and quiet beauty.

But now it’s time to vote in 20 categories, so head to www.wondersofwisconsin.com before April 24. Only one vote per e-mail address is allowed. Sorry, there are no paper ballots.

We added a category – Best Folk Art/Outsider Art – because Wisconsin, thanks to the Kohler Foundation’s assertiveness, has become a global leader in the preservation of outdoor art that is created by people with no formal training.

We eliminated one category – Best Downhill Skiing – because our choices are limited, and Wausau’s Rib Mountain State Park was the clear winner.

We combined two categories – Most Romantic and Best Weekend Getaway – because of similarities and are calling it Most Romantic Adult Getaway.

If we could do it in a logical and orderly manner, we’d find a way to include each of the terrific places that you mentioned.

Many thanks to Harold Babler, for example, for sending pretty snapshots from Monticello in Green County, a lovely town that he says “always is forgotten in newspaper articles” about the area. Population is 1,100.

He writes about excellent fine dining at the Monticello House and The Dining Room at 209 Main, and we know that to be true. The Sugar River and Badger State bicycling trails cross at the east edge of town.

“Many schools bring busloads of students for fishing and picnics,” Harold also notes.

Barbara Lee of Madison nominated her hometown, Mondovi, in Buffalo County. Population is 2,600, and Barbara considers it the best town on a lake.

Margaret Zerwekh made a strong case for her community, Delafield in Waukesha County, whose population is under 7,000. “One of the oldest towns,” she writes. It is “of geological and historical significance.”

We could go on and on. Your passion and strong pride of place is evident and widespread. Our need to limit the number of nominations was necessary but tremendously difficult.

Gary Knowles of Madison – Wisconsin travel ambassador, marketer and writer – spearheaded this project. Others on the nominee selection committee were Milwaukee author Martin Hintz, Milwaukee/Bayfield travel writer Dennis McCann, Madison radio broadcaster Rick Murphy of WIBA, Green Bay website/survey developer Mike Peroutka and Portage travel writer Betty Stark.

Update: The unincorporated community of Franklin, in Sheboygan County, will be added to the 2010 Wisconsin State Highway Map. We recently mentioned Franklin’s valiant struggle to hang onto its identity.

Carol Ann Rittenhouse, proprietor of the 1857 Franklin Haus Village Tavern & Market, got the good word a couple of weeks ago. “You have just done a wonderful act,” she responded, to the state Department of Transportation’s decision. “All the people who care about history thank you.”

The DOT told her that Jackson County also has an unincorporated Franklin.

What does it take to get onto Wisconsin’s map? From Ken Cowan, at the DOT’s Bureau of Technical Services:

There “must be adequate space on the map to display the community name and symbol.

“The community should have a reasonable permanent population (a minimum of 50 people) within a reasonable geographic proximity (1/4 miles in each direction of a common intersection).

“The community should have either a dependable motorist service (such as a service or repair garage), or a major traffic attraction (such as a consolidated school or major industry), or a recognized point of interest to which tourists might regularly be directed.”

Determined to distinguish your town from the others? The new “Destination Branding for Small Cities: The Essentials for Successful Place Branding” by Bill Baker ($24.95, Creative Leap Books) explains the challenges, procedures, rewards and pitfalls.

“Be careful what you wish for,” the Oregon author says, in his introduction. “While many places may have the intention of adopting a branded approach, they unintentionally fall short, opting instead for a superficial image ‘wrapper’ in the form of a logo, tagline or theme for an advertising campaign.”

He quotes Madison’s Bill Geist, a consultant on such matters: “There’s an ocean of difference between a brand and a slogan.”

The state Department of Tourism for months has been working on a brand identity for Wisconsin, to be unveiled at the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism next week. When you hear about it, please send us a note or e-mail with your reaction.

Surprise: African Hut, the downtown Milwaukee restaurant that we featured recently, has closed abruptly after being in business 15 years. Owners Yinka and Moji Adedokun offered no clue about this decision during our interviews with them. Other media reported that finances are problematic.