The February issue of Colorado Municipalities magazine featured an article on Community Heart & Soul® and its impact in three communities--Cortez, Golden and the North Fork Valley. Each faced different challenges and all found that engaging residents made their communities stronger and more cohesive.
Reprinted with permission.
HEARING FROM ALL RESIDENTS LEADS TO BETTER TOWNS FOR ALL
By Alece Montez-Griego, Director of Programs, Orton Family Foundation
WHEN HIGHWAY 491 IN CORTEZ was slated for repaving by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), municipal officials saw an opportunity to turn an eyesore entryway into a welcoming gateway. The project happened to come up at the same time the City was busy engaging residents in Cortez Heart & Soul, which was the name Cortez chose for its Community Heart & Soul® project.
Developed by the Orton Family Foundation, the method brings a broad range of residents together to determine what they most value about where they live. Cortez’s story and the stories included here from other towns illustrate the power of resident-driven plans and action that is rooted in what matters most to them — in other words residents’ “heart and soul.”
In Cortez, improving the appearance of downtown was one of those priorities. The Colorado Department of Transportation’s plans for South Broadway, as Highway 491 is called within municipal limits, did not align with what residents envisioned.
“The design was completely counter to what the Heart & Soul Team had been hearing from residents. I called it doubling down on ugly. We had this really ugly entrance. CDOT’s initial plan was to patch these old medians, and make them look like a calico cat that they would not touch again for another 40 years,” Cortez City Manager Shane Hale said.
The city council responded by allocating $650,000 to begin making changes downtown, no small amount for a municipality of 8,600 residents. Working with a design team of landscape architects and civil and traffic engineers, the City held several design charrettes with the community. Additionally, the Cortez City Council broadened the initial design to include several streets in the downtown core, ensuring that Cortez had a cohesive plan moving forward.
Knowing support existed among residents made the city council and the planning department case even stronger. Cortez approached the state with designs by the community and pushed for what they wanted. In the end, tired and broken concrete was replaced with drought-tolerant plants, trees, and shrubs. Unsafe streetlights were updated through a partnership between the City and Empire Electric Association. Following the project, two new businesses were built on vacant lots, welcome additions that countered the tide of development that had previously occurred only on the east side of town near Walmart. Getting CDOT to allow Cortez to codesign the highway was groundbreaking.
There was another groundbreaking aspect of the project — the role that the Ute Mountain Ute tribe played. Key tenets of Community Heart & Soul are to involve everyone and reach people whose voices had been missing. The City saw one element of the project as a chance to involve the tribe, including a missing voice and bridging a historical divide. Design of the welcome sign was given over to the tribe, as this is its entryway to Cortez. All of the design work was conducted on tribal lands, with very little input from city leadership, which was intentional. The significance of this went beyond the signage. Having communication with the tribe allowed the town to be aware of and honor the local culture and traditions. One tribal member said that because of Heart & Soul, the tribe and city met in a way that had not happened before, providing the opportunity to talk about historical traumas and marking the start of a change in the relationship between the two.
What happened in Cortez illustrates how community engagement lifts up a community. Engaging residents helped the City establish priorities and push for change. The result was a gateway that attracted visitors and businesses and began a better relationship with neighbors. Involving a broad representation of residents and identifying what they love about where they live helps communities chart a course that leads to a better quality of life for everyone. Cortez is a good example of that. Here are other examples of Colorado towns that strengthened their communities in different ways through Community Heart & Soul.
The story of the discovery of an 1870s church built by a freed slave in Mount Holly Springs, Pennsylvania, illustrates the power of storytelling to not only illuminate the past, but to galvanize a community around an important piece of its history.
As often happens with discoveries, a combination of curiosity, timing, and coincidence began to align when high school students in Lindsay Varner’s oral history class found a newspaper article that mentioned an abandoned African-American church in Mount Holly Springs. It made sense that the area would have an African-American church. The Underground Railroad went through the area and Mount Holly Springs was home to a free black community that settled there before the Civil War.
Determined to find the church, Varner drove down a narrow, dirt road at the foot of a hill where she believed the church would be. She found only a few dozen gravestones leaning in a grassy lot.
Meanwhile, Varner’s attention turned to her role as project coordinator for the Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul, a Community Heart & Soul® project funded with a grant from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. A significant component of the project entailed gathering stories from community members to find out what matters most to them about where they live.
Among the people whose names surfaced for interviews were “the Gumby sisters,” three longtime residents of Mount Holly Springs. She set up an interview with the two younger sisters, both in their 80s, who, it turned out, had ties to the church. Their grandfather, a former slave and Civil War soldier, built the church and was its first pastor.
Harriet Gumby took Varner to the church. The one room, weatherworn, wooden structure was cloaked in vines. Poison ivy created a natural barrier around the church. Vultures swooped out from the eaves, prompting Gumby to note that they were standing guard over the place. Varner peered inside and saw a scene frozen in time. The pastors’ chairs, pews, hymnals, religious comic books, an oil lamp, even a piano and pump organ were all in the building.
“It was like a time capsule. It was amazing. It was absolutely incredible. When I walked into the church I’d never seen anything like it,” Varner said.
Varner knew this was an important piece of history. She went to work assembling a team of local leaders, historians, and preservation experts, who all kept the discovery quiet until the building, which had a hole in the roof and was deep in dust, could be stabilized and the contents secured.
In September, Varner led a tour of the church. Among those on the tour was a family whose ancestor, U.S. Colored Troops veteran, was buried in the cemetery. They’d been searching for the burial place for years and were so moved when they found it, they offered to help locate a shipping container to temporarily house artifacts from the church.
Today, the 1870s Mount Tabor AME Zion Church has brought the community together to work on preserving this piece of African-American history.
“This church is part of African-American history. It’s part of Mount Holly’s history. It’s part of Cumberland County’s history. It plays into a much wider narrative than just being a personal connection,” Varner said. “And that’s where we are at this moment, working to preserve both the items inside and the memory of the church as well as the cemetery.”
When it comes to community engagement, high-tech tools and complicated processes often take center-stage, but Heart & Soul communities find that successful engagement comes from the simple act of connecting with residents to learn why they love their town.
As part of the Heart & Soul Talks series, three speakers joined Orton Family Foundation on January 26 to talk about successful community engagement. Their strategies weren’t traditional—block parties, living room conversations, and soccer tournaments—but they got results.
Jim Bennett, city manager in Biddeford, Maine, and past president of International City/County Management Association (ICMA), emphasized the importance of community pride in garnering engagement.
“People love where they live—they want to be proud of their hometown. Having pride in the community is a powerful motive,” he said.
He should know. For years, Biddeford’s moniker “Trash Town” overshadowed its best assets—historic downtown buildings, affordability, family friendliness—preventing positive growth and investment. Community Heart & Soul® helped the whole community rediscover those things that make Biddeford a great place to live, restoring pride and spurring action to clean up downtown. Today, commercial real estate values in downtown have averaged a 60% increase in value since 2014, residential values are up by 12%, and 1.6 million square feet of previously abandoned mill space is almost full.
This remarkable turnaround began with community engagement.
“There is something special in every community. The challenge is to find what that is—the heartbeat, why people care,” he shared.
In Biddeford, that challenge was met through conversations between residents—activities like youth interviews with their grandparents, a storytelling hotline, neighborhood meetings, and listening to Franco elders at the local Franco-American festival.
In contrast to Biddeford, Golden, Colorado, wasn’t struggling when it embarked on Heart & Soul in 2010, and it has only grown more prosperous since. Community engagement that included block parties with bouncy castles, hotdogs, and opportunities for citizens to connect with city staff were at the heart of the process. The result was a set of guiding principles that have stood the test of time.
Seven years later, the city is still seeing positive results, and the culture of citizen engagement, confidence in government, and a welcoming community has been verified by the National Citizen Survey and the Gallup Well-being Index.
Mike’s favorite tip for engagement comes from another town, Paonia, Colorado, where the Heart & Soul Team used bar coasters to collect input from 30-somethings at the local brewpub.
Kirsten Sackett, director of community development in Ellensburg, Washington, first experienced the benefits of Community Heart & Soul while working in Cortez, Colorado. She is leading a similar effort in Ellensburg, starting with deliberate outreach to community members. Kirsten and her staff are reaching residents in unlikely places, at least for city government. One of their first steps was a local soccer tournament, where they connected with parents during games. On the importance of intentional communication, Kirsten recommends, “Go to the places where people are most familiar, where people are available, and where trust can be built.”
Hear more from Jim, Mike and Kirsten in the Heart & Soul Talks recording: https://soundcloud.com/ortonfamilyfoundation/heart-soul-talks-strengthen-your-community-through-engagement.
It’s that time of year again, Valentine’s Day. This day is filled with flowers, chocolates, and cards from that one special person. Did you ever wonder how this tradition got started? And who is Valentine anyway?
Here’s what the Huffington Post had to say: “The most popular account of its origins date back to a temple priest named, not surprisingly, Valentine, a later-to-be-canonized saint who was executed in 270 A.D. by Emperor Claudius II for performing illegal marriage ceremonies on the Roman battlefield. Back then, as the story goes, the military-minded Claudius believed connubial bliss was bad for war and made it illegal for soldiers to wed. Imprisoned for his battlefield-betrothing ways, Valentine, a man of many talents, supposedly healed the blind daughter of his jailer while incarcerated and, the night before his execution, gave the newly sighted young lass a hand written card signed — you guessed it — ‘From Your Valentine.’”
Saint Valentine clearly touched many lives, so why do we think of this day as a time to celebrate the love of one person? Why not make Valentine’s Day a great excuse to highlight what we love about our communities? Remember-elementary school, when we had to bring in valentines for the entire class. Why not extend our sharing of kindness and appreciation to our entire communities? Showing your community that you love and care can build a stronger sense of pride and respect in your town.
Here are some ideas for bringing bring Valentine’s Day to your community:
1. Think like a kid
2. Host a Red Ball
3. The food we love
4. Guess again
5. Let’s play games
6. A service of love
7. What do you love?
8. Some puppy love
9. Racing with love
10. Wine in the Library
Whatever event you choose to do this Valentine’s Day, have fun and remember to show people in your community that you appreciate them. To see some creative ways towns have celebrated Valentine’s Day, check out this blog post: http://www.orton.org/blog/this_valentines_day_wear_your
Does your community do something fun for Valentine’s Day? Share it with us on social media. And don’t forget to follow The Orton Family Foundation on Twitter and Instagram @Ortonfoundation and Facebook @OrtonFamilyFoundation. Also, use the hashtag #CommunityMatters.
We are always amazed by the creative ways Community Heart & Soul® towns gather input from residents. In the process they not only get quality feedback, they also create opportunities for residents to engage with one another and build community. Here are nine examples we find especially compelling and fun!
1. Block party with a story booth
2. Window graffiti in prominent public places for all to see
3. Capturing ideas on drink coasters
4. Photo contest with community discussions and an award
5. Youth murals
6. Post cards/rack cards
7. Heart Spots phone line with locations throughout the town
8. Candy corn in jars to identify priorities
9. Remote polling using cell phones
The number of ways to engage the community are about as limitless as the imagination. Hopefully you found some helpful hints in this post to try in your community! Follow us on Facebook (The Orton Family Foundation) and Twitter (@OrtonFoundation) for updates on Heart & Soul towns and our organization.
To read more about effective engagement check out this blog post on Top Ten Best Ways for Inclusive Engagement. http://www.orton.org/blog/top-ten-tips-inclusive-engagem Or check out our resource for public engagement methods: http://www.orton.org/sites/default/files/resources/public-engagement-methods.pdf.
Over the past few weeks we have asked our friends on Facebook to send in pictures of their dressed up downtowns. We want to thank everyone who submitted pictures from Millinocket, Maine to San Elizario,Texas and in between. All of your towns looked beautiful all decked out for the holiday season.
From the submissions we randomly drew three lucky winners of a Vermont Country Store gift card.
The three lucky winners of #DowntownDecorations! Please continue following the Orton Family Foundation for more fun contests, interesting stories, and ways to make your communities thrive.
To see all of the submissions go to http://mydowntowndecorations.tumblr.com/
By Becky McCray
Over 300 people from 38 states gathered in Iowa last month under the banner of the first Next Generation Rural Creative Placemaking Summit. What generated all that excitement? And what does it mean for your town?
First, let's tackle placemaking. It's a bit of a buzzword itself. Placemaking means local people working together to make the public spaces in their town better, with a focus on building a stronger community. Public spaces are all the places we share, like downtown, parks, squares, sidewalks, streets, and more. These all belong to us. They are the places where community building actually happens. It's really about our shared quality of life.
Now that we have placemaking, what is creative placemaking? It's still about local people working together on public spaces to build community. What's different is the focus on using our creative skills, our arts, crafts, music, and everything creative, to improve our quality of life.
Why rural? That is the most exciting part, to me. We are seeing an entire movement emerge that's focused on small towns and rural places and how the arts help make rural places better.
What does rural creative placemaking look like?
Here are some examples that came up at the summit:
Finding Allies, Involving Everyone
While I was at the summit, I was struck by how similar the conversations with artists and creatives were to conversations I have had with chambers of commerce, economic developers and all kinds of civic-minded local businesses. I wanted to bring the creative types together with the business types to see if we could bring the conversations together and take action with more people locally.
So I created a checklist of local organizations to help you find other groups in your rural place who might want to talk with you about creative placemaking and better quality of life. There's also a short video with a little explanation. Find them both here: http://saveyour.town/rcp/
What creative placemaking ideas do you have for your community? Can you envision any unlikely alliances like poets and wrestlers?
About the author: Becky McCray started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.
If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him. …The people who give you their food give you their heart. -Cesar Chavez
With Thanksgiving and the holidays right around the corner, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on the power of food and meals to bring us together. The relatively simple gesture of preparing and serving food can build relationships and trust.
Take the case of McComb, Ohio, where a cookout put on by the Community Heart & Soul® team there led several significant, positive changes including, greater diversity on the team, a new Spanish-language translator for the schools, and a boost that got a catering business off the ground.
With the Heart & Soul™ principle “Involve Everyone” in mind, the team decided to reach out to the predominantly Hispanic Cora Street neighborhood. Project Coordinator Joe Wasson, who grew up in McComb, said he and others on the team had never been to the mobile home park. Armed with a grill, meat, and fixings, plus a big, inflatable, bounce house for the kids, the team set out to hear from the residents. What they ended up getting was so much more.
For one thing, they got an invitation to a potluck in the park the following week. Wasson and others on the team went. Wasson thought he’d get a bite to eat and say hello. He stayed for three hours.
“It was such a neat experience,” he recalled. “Not only did we eat this amazing food, we just hung out for hours talking.”
The potluck in the park led to more connections. Immediately Wasson noticed that when he was visiting in the schools or the grocery store, people from the neighborhood recognized him and waved to him. This happened to others on the team as well.
A Hispanic woman got involved in the Heart & Soul project and that led to her working with the school as a translator.
When the Heart & Soul team was having a training, a woman from the Cora Street neighborhood was hired to do the catering.
Guadalupe Hernandez didn’t want to get paid for the job, however, because she considered it an opportunity to test the business she and her husband Leonardo Bernal hoped to start one day. Wasson insisted on paying. The food was fantastic, and another connection was cemented that lead to even more possibilities.
Wasson learned that the couple wanted to take their catering on the road, so to speak, in a food truck. English is not the couple’s first language so Wasson offered to help them navigate the paperwork and permits they would need to get started. He spoke with a lawyer about creating an LLC and an accountant about helping with financials. He pulled together a template for a business plan and paperwork for various permits. He even called the cookie factory, which employs 1,700, and got the OK to have the truck pull up during lunch break.
Wasson was fairly confident the concept would be a hit. He knew the food would be good. He also knew, from the Heart & Soul work he was doing, that locals wanted more dining options.
“Through our data we saw that people are really screaming ‘We want restaurants.’ A food truck might not be exactly what they are thinking, but it’s a start.”
Just like the cookout on Cora Street was just a start.
Here are some other tempting ideas for engaging residents and making connections through food.
Celebrate a Celebration: Hearing from people in the Hispanic community was a priority for the Cortez Heart & Soul project. One effective way that has happened was at a block party on September 16, Mexican Independence Day. The Heart & Soul team supported the event with a small grant, but the neighborhood organized it. A potluck was at the center of the celebration with traditional foods like tamales, toastadas, and beans and rice. A key to the event's success was that it was organized and presented by the neighborhood, said Monica Palmquist, Heart & Soul team member. Connections made at the event built trust and have had a positive and lasting effect, she said.
Vote with Your Appetite: Even the simple act of choosing what to eat can bring a group together. In Essex, Vermont, residents are giving input on a school district merger through a series of meetings. Attendees are asked to "vote" with stickers on a big sheet of paper for what they'd like to eat at the next meeting.
"It was a really easy way for people to feel like their voice made a difference, and it was a powerful way too, because at the next meeting, there was the food they voted for,” said Susan McCormack, senior associate with Everyday Democracy, who facilitates the meetings and was a project coordinator for Heart & Soul of Essex.
Quid pro pie: The North Fork Valley Heart & Soul project in Colorado held a series of community conversations called “Your Slice of the Pie.” Residents were invited to share their “piece of the story” about what makes where they live unique and worth preserving. In exchange, attendees were treated to a slice of delicious locally baked pie.
“While many people did come for the pie, they left knowing more about both strangers and friends, and began thinking about their own ideas for the future,” said Alexis Halbert, who was project coordinator at the time, and is a senior associate at Orton.