The Essex, Vermont Heart & Soul team wrapped up its two-year initiative and was organizing to go to work on projects that came out of the process when a call came in from the town’s selectboard. A citizen’s advocacy group wanted to change the way the town’s budget was voted on, altering a time-honored tradition of voting on budgets at an annual gathering called Town Meeting.
Like most towns in Vermont, Essex residents vote on town budgets by voice at annual meetings held the second Tuesday in March. Town Meeting is a distinctly New England tradition that typically involves a pot luck meal, and it’s not unusual to hear the tick of knitting needles while debates unfold over whether to buy a new fire truck or to increase the budget for sand and salt to keep roads passable in the winter.
Budget to Ballot, as the citizens’ group is named, argues that only a small percentage of residents attend Town Meeting and that changes are sometimes made at the meeting just before the vote without a full public debate. Last year’s meeting was attended by 261 residents. There are 15,808 registered voters in the town. Budget to Ballot proposes debating the budget at Town Meeting and voting on it by secret ballot the next month when the school board budget is also voted on by ballot.
Rather than rush the controversial issue to a vote in November, the selectboard saw an opportunity to capitalize on Heart & Soul of Essex’s community building know-how.
Max Levy, chairman of the selectboard contacted Liz Subin, who was co-coordinator of Heart & Soul of Essex and now co-chairs the Legacy Board that is carrying on the action plan of the Heart & Soul project that wrapped up in February. He asked Subin if Heart & Soul could facilitate a community conversation on voting in Essex.
Subin was eager to put Heart & Soul right back to work engaging voters across the town, with one caveat. Budget to Ballot organizers had to be willing to go along with a process that wasn’t working toward a specific outcome, but, rather, gauging the community’s stance on how best to proceed. Budget to Ballot advocates agreed.
With a $5,000 grant from the town matched by Orton Family Foundation, Heart & Soul was dispatched to both educate citizens about voting and consider several possible scenarios for the future from not changing anything to installing a representative form of Town Meeting where delegates would attend from specified districts to eliminating Town Meeting.
“It felt like a really organic move from framing our values to identifying what matters for people living here and taking that and applying it to an issue,” said Liz Subin, who was co-coordinator of Heart & Soul of Essex and is now co-chair of the Legacy Board carrying on the work of Heart & Soul. “I felt really encouraged that Max thought about us to take this process from a place of battle and us against them and to a place of ‘let’s work together.’ To me that’s what Heart & Soul is all about.”
Heart & Soul is scheduled to report findings and make recommendations in December. Stay tuned.
When two cities in Maine got together to do some regional marketing the co-branding effort was a milestone in cross-city collaboration. There was just one problem: Which city should be named first, Saco or Biddeford? The issue was raised at every focus group.
“It always came up. Was it Biddeford and Saco or Saco and Biddeford?” said Delilah Poupore, executive director of Heart of Biddeford, the organization in charge of Biddeford’s Main Street Maine program. “There were feelings about that. There were traditions about that.”
The consultants hired to work with the two cities issued an ultimatum. Before any marketing could happen the cities had to solve the naming problem and solve it in one sentence.
The solution: acknowledge the divide and move past it. Here’s how the brand statement summed it up: “We are Biddeford and Saco, Saco and Biddeford: one dynamic place, no matter how you say it.” A creative graphic captured the theme as well, and the towns can reverse the order as they see fit.
More than symbolic, the logo represents a new chapter for the two cities, separated by a river and a history of division rooted in the nineteenth century. Biddeford was home to textile mills and workers. Saco was where the mill owners and managers lived.
Much has changed over the years. Biddeford’s downtown is beginning to revive, and Saco’s downtown felt the pinch of recession creating a leveling effect of sorts. In Biddeford the pump was primed by a two-year Community Heart & Soul™ project and subsequent master plan that spelled out goals for the community, one of which was more marketing.
That gave the town the green light to pursue a partnership with Saco and to get funding to do it, Poupore said
The co-branding couldn’t have happened had the communities not been ready, said Ben Muldrow, principal with Arnett Muldrow and Associates, consultants on the project.
“Had a group of marketers from South Carolina come in and told them they should blend their names, we probably would have been run out,” Muldrow said. “The two towns have strong leaders, great organizations, and an exciting future.
Four organizations were chosen to host the 2014 rural design technical assistance workshops. Here are the hosts and their challenges:
This month the city of Laconia, New Hampshire (pop. 17,060) launched a Community Heart & Soul™ project. In the coming 18 months, Laconia plans to engage residents in a community-wide conversation about what matters most—empowering all residents to shape the future of their towns—before the city updates its master plan.
Laconia is the 10th town to deploy our Community Heart & Soul approach, and our first in the Granite State. We are in good company there, with strong support from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, which awarded $20,000 for the project, and NH Listens, which will assist with training and outreach.
Backed by years of work with small towns and more recently by our nine Community Heart & Soul towns where we field tested the approach, we look to Laconia as a harbinger, bringing our proven, resident-driven method to places beyond New England and the Rocky Mountains, where the Foundation has concentrated its efforts. To do this we envision partnerships with like-minded organizations, as are onboard in Laconia, that align with our mission to build stronger communities. I’ll look forward to sharing more on this in coming months.
So, I extend a warm welcome to Laconia and very much look forward to an experience that I have no doubt will be transformative as Laconians from all over—Lakeport, Weirs Beach, Downtown, young, old and in between—roll up their sleeves and get down to what matters most and what they value most about the unique place they call home.
– David Leckey, executive director
Orton Family Foundation
In Cortez, Colorado, plans for a 4,800-square-foot convenience store and gas station across the street from a high school raised concerns among neighbors and school officials. Traffic, noise and crime were among the issues on neighbors' minds.
"We were a little uncomfortable just because it's right across the street. Our primary concern was the increase in traffic," Jennifer Carter, director of Southwest Open School said.
The property was appropriately zoned and plans met city requirements. The Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval but asked that the company, Utah-based Maverik, meet with neighbors and the school.
The city organized a meeting at the high school with Maverik, neighbors and school and city officials. Building and Planning Director Kirsten Sackett presided at the meeting, logging the issues raised on large sheets of paper stuck to the wall. Next the group prioritized concerns and worked on resolutions.
There was back and forth, said Todd Meyers, Maverik permit manager and former city planner who attended the meeting. For example:
When it came time for the public hearing and city council vote a few weeks later, neither neighbors nor school officials spoke in opposition. The neighborhood meeting proved to be good business even before the store opened, Meyers said.
"We have a positive image going in to it as we open our doors. We haven't stepped on anybody's toes as we could have if we hadn't had that process," Meyers said.
Sackett hopes requiring developers to meet with neighbors becomes a standard part of the approval process.
"I envision that as the way weíll do business from now on, where we change our Land Use Code to require these neighborhood meetings instead of just posting a little notice in the paper that nobody reads," she said.
Our Community Heart & Soul approach to planning asks folks to ask each other, “What matters most?” because we believe in the power of shared values to shape better futures. When enough people agree on the qualities of their town they care most about, everyone is better connected with each other and the community. Those strengthened ties inspire people to work together to protect and enhance what they care about. We know, because we have seen it happen.
We’ve been along for the ride as places like Polson, Montana discovered their shared commitment to a natural environment and a healthy, active lifestyle. In Colorado’s North Fork Valley, residents identified freedom, independence and personal responsibility as a key community value. Essex, Vermont’s six core values include thoughtful growth and community connections. The content may differ from place to place, but we know first hand that the positive impact on social cohesion of defining and describing shared values is universal.
Agreed-upon shared values help bind people together, and there are many, many ways that communities can uphold them to build stronger and more vibrant places. But all communities face the same challenge: They only have so much money, so much time, so many people offering their skills. With increasingly limited resources, how can communities make choices about what actions are most important?
Here are five tips for using community values to help make decisions based on what matters most: