Leslie Wright's Blog

Creative Placemaking Needs to Happen Now in Small Towns

image of  Zach Mannheimer

Q & A with Zachary Mannheimer, 39, principal community planner, McClure Engineering Co.

Zachary Mannheimer is a featured speaker in an upcoming webinar on March 23, 2017, Creative Placemaking: Economic Development for the Next Generation, co-sponsored by Citizens' Institute on Rural Design. We interviewed Zachary about the work he does and what motivates him. 

Q: What is creative placemaking?

ZM: Basically it means, “How do you enrich a community through cultural and entrepreneurial ideas?” For the most part it’s been done in urban areas like Detroit, but not a lot has been done in rural areas, which is the twist I’m putting on it.  I’m specializing in rural areas, which is rare in creative placemaking. I see the future of our country being in more rural areas because of population growth and urban areas running out of space. Places that were once out in the sticks are going to be part of urban areas. This is going to be happening in the next 30 years. Are you prepared for it? If you aren’t prepared for it you are going to go the way of the dodo. Rural areas have to adapt now and create amenities that people are looking for or they are going to struggle to remain a vibrant and rural community.

Q: After you arrived in Des Moines, you founded the Des Moines Social Club in 2009, an arts venue that features space for performing and visual arts along with classrooms. What prompted you to create this place?

ZM: I was in Brooklyn, New York, where I ran the Subjective Theater Company with a mission to inspire creativity and social responsibility. It had great acclaim, but nearly everybody who came to our shows agreed with our  opinion  I knew there were other places in the country to do this work, but I wasn’t sure where. I drove to 22 cities over eight weeks in 2007. I visited each city for three to five days and asked lots of questions and ultimately chose Iowa and Des Moines.  

Everyone in my family said I was nuts and would be back in a year. They were right about the nuts part, but I moved here the day after my 30th birthday in 2007. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have any funding or anything, but I wanted to start this social club.

I became a maître d’ at a private club and met community leaders and that worked out well—we were able to secure grants after eight months. We got a one-year lease in a crappy building, and we started.

The idea was to create a venue where all political ideologies, all demographics, all walks of life can actively participate on a regular basis. The goal was to create community through the arts. We tried to have two events every night that drew opposite crowds.  You’ll have a Shakespeare and a punk band; a culinary class and a hip-hop festival, a graffiti festival and a momma-and-me yoga class. The goal is, “How do we change the community through arts?” We do it by creating a safe space but people come for different reasons and they blend. 

Q: After founding the social club, you transitioned to the for-profit business world, butstayed focused on creative placemaking first at Iowa Business Growth and now McClure Engineering.  What’s been your favorite project?

ZM: I would say Fort Dodge. It’s in process. Fort Dodge is a town of 25,000 an hour and a half north of Des Moines. One of their issues is they have Warden Plaza Hotel in the center of downtown. It’s 260,000 square feet and it has been vacant for 25 years. We came in to figure out what the heck to do with this thing. If we couldn’t figure it out, they would knock it down. We did a cultural assessment. It told us that residents wanted a recreation center. They also wanted a cultural center. So we built a business model that formed a nonprofit that combined the rec center, with basketball courts, two pools, a workout center, and a cultural center. The upper floors were set aside for 80 to 90 market-rate apartments.  It all worked out on paper that it would survive if it was built, but it would cost $60 million. All but $8 million of it was accounted for in city bonding, new tax credits, historic tax credits, and the developer putting in their own equity. We are doing a fundraising campaign to bridge that gap.

Another project is in Earlham, which is 1,400 people and is about a half hour west of Des Moines. I helped a local person purchase an empty building on Main Street. We are turning it into to a farm-to-table restaurant with a nonprofit culinary school on the second story.  It opens this fall.

Q: How have you seen creative placemaking impact a community, in terms of its ripple effect?

ZM: The Des Moines Social Club brings $8 million into the community through economic activity stimulated due to the social club being there. It took an area in the downtown where not much was going on and now every single building around the social club is being developed. It’s been a major attraction and retention tool that has worked brilliantly. It has worked with over 1,000 artists a year, and it pays artist for their work. It’s working to establish Des Moines as a cultural center, which will equal more investment and more young people wanting to come here.

Q: When you are not creative placemaking, what do you enjoy doing?

ZM: I’ve got three kids all under seven so I’m very involved with them. I’m on the board of Iowa Public Radio. I’m a theater guy so I try to do as much theater as I can. 

Note: The webinar on March 23 has reached capacity, but please register using the "recording only" ticket type and we will send you the webinar recording when it is available. Thank you for your interest!

Teens in Iowa Envision a Future There

Bellevue Heart & Soul recently sponsored a workshop and town hall meeting with two local high schools to create a vision for how young people see themselves in the future of Bellevue, Iowa.  Students spoke about their vision and community members joined them in creating an action plan for implementation.

Results from a survey of middle school through high school students were presented during the event, and helped provide insight for the discussions. Findings of the survey, which was facilitated by the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship included:

  • nearly two-thirds of teens picture themselves living in the Bellevue area in the future, stating that it was a good place to raise a family, and has strong family ties and quality schools
  • 15% said they had been asked for their input about the future of the community
  • 68% said they would volunteer if asked by an adult community leader to become involved

Bellevue Heart & Soul is a partnership with the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. 

Watch the video:

Three Towns. Three Challenges. One Solution. Engage Everyone.

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.


image of chalk board

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. 

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How Storytelling Galvanized a Community around a Lost Piece of its History

image of church

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.

grave stone

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.”

Why Small Towns are Buzzing About Rural Creative Placemaking

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:

  • Camille Ferguson with American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association highlighted how the National Park Service cooperated with Native American tribes around the Grand Canyon to turn an old, tacky, gift shop into a vibrant display and demonstration space for Native artists.
  • Nikiko Masumoto with Masumoto Family Farm in California, talked about how their family farm went from thinking of themselves just as producers of fruits and vegetables, to thinking of the farm as a meeting place. Instead of thinking only about the end product for people to eat, they have begun to consider the experiences that people can have at their farm, how the fields and orchards look and feel, and how that affects visitors. 
  • In Iowa, a community theater held a professional wrestling event in their main room and a poetry reading in their bar area, on the same night each week. The two crowds avoided each other until the third week, when a few wrestlers ventured over and admitted they also write poetry. By the fourth month, they were connecting, and after that, they had to coordinate times so people could go to both the wrestling and the poetry reading. Now they always try to schedule two crowds they used to think of as opposite on the same night, Zach Mannheimer with Iowa Business Growth said. 
  • Zuni, New Mexico, is transforming from a town with no formal economy and no public spaces to share, into a place where everyone can come and informal businesses can get a start and grow from pop-ups to mobile street vendor carts, Ted Jojola of the Indigenous Design + Planning Institute explained. It's an example of the seventh generation principle they like to use at Zuni Pueblo and many other Native communities, considering the point of view of your great-grandparents, your grandparents, your parents, you, your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren. 

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?


Video archive 

Photos on Storify 


Checklist for finding allies 

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.

Creating Connections One Meal at a Time


image of BBQ

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. 

image of potluck

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.

6 Innovative Small Business Models in Small Towns

By Becky McCray

You don’t have to settle for a normal business. Rural businesses are exploring new shapes, new locations and new ways of doing business. Here are six innovative ways people are building businesses in small towns today.

1. Pop-ups

These are temporary business that may last from just one day to several months. You’ve seen short-term vendors setting up tents and booths around special events, and this extends the idea to all kinds of businesses. You can experiment and gauge demand in a small town before committing to a more expensive permanent business.

Pop-ups can be as small as a booth for a day, or as big as a full-size building rented just for the holiday season, or anything in between.

Pop-ups are a good fit for: restaurants, retail stores, and artists.

2. Trucks and Trailers

Food trucks are a hot trend in urban areas, and now all kinds of business from retail to service are going mobile. With a truck or trailer as a base, there’s no need for a building. That’s good, because there is often a problem finding usable buildings in small towns.

Mobile businesses can also build their market by taking advantage of neighboring small towns’ special event crowds. Instead of having to set up and tear down a booth every time, the whole thing is ready to go in the trailer.

Trucks and Trailers are a good fit for: specialty foods and retail. 

3. Business-in-a-business

In a small town, there may not be enough demand for a single business to fill up an entire building, office or retail space. Rural innovators are now borrowing and sharing space with several different businesses under one roof. A restaurant may pop-up inside a retail space. A single retail store may include half a dozen different vendors or mini-shops inside. You can even make a business of subdividing your building, like an old-school antique mall or an upscale version with separate small spaces.

Business-in-a-business is a good fit for: small retailers.

4. Tiny business villages

Groups of tiny houses or dressed-up sheds are popping up on empty lots and unused green spaces, filled with extra-small businesses. The smaller spaces encourage lower-risk experiments, and all the businesses together draw a critical mass of visitors to the village. The key factor is to bring a number of them together. One tiny business on its own is lonely; groups of tiny businesses are a draw.

Individual crafters or artisans who couldn’t fill an entire store get a chance to fill a tiny space. Agri-tourism businesses like wineries or maple syrup who couldn’t justify renting an entire downtown storefront, can easily support a tiny storefront.

Tiny businesses are a good fit for: super-specialty retail. 

5. Rural-sourcing

It’s usually cheaper to live in a small town than an urban area. Now freelancers and specialist rural-sourcing companies use the small town cost of living as an advantage to compete for big-city contracts. Online marketplaces like Upwork let people work from anywhere and deliver services digitally.

Some professional services, including web designers, writers, programmers, creative artists, marketers, consultants and virtual assistants, may not be able to make their entire living from local customers, but can easily score work from out of town clients.

Rural-sourcing is a good fit for: service providers, creative professionals, online services. 

6. Omni-local

Instead of waiting for customers to walk in the front door, smart rural retailers are using the same omni-channel tactics as big retailers. The low cost of cloud-based tools allows them to reach local customers in multiple new ways. It’s easier and more affordable than ever for small town business to use e-commerce to take orders online, mobile-friendly websites to connect with customers on the go, and subscription boxes to delight customers monthly.

Omni-local is a good fit for: existing small brick-and-mortar retailers looking to reach more customers.

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.

This article first appeared in Small Biz Survival and is reprinted with permission.

Here's a video from a recent keynote speech Becky gave in Kentucky:


5 Ways to Engage the Community through the Arts

Engaging the arts can be a great way to engage people, especially those might who not otherwise participate. Below are examples of how Community Heart & Soul™ towns have used the arts to creatively engage the community.

1. Bridging Town and Gown. The arts were a bridge between University of New England students and the local community of Biddeford, Maine. Facilitated by the Heart of Biddeford project, students took a more active role in town life through partnerships with City Theater and two art galleries.  The student theater group,  UNE Players, stages productions at the theater and members have seats on the theater's board of directors.  Students and faculty put on exhibitions at local gallery Engine and in the North Dam Mill. 

2. Mobilizing with Mobiles: More than a hundred volunteers and students from five schools in Essex, Vermont, teamed up to create mobiles under the direction of artist Kevin Reese. The mobiles represent the Heart & Soul value statements that emerged from the Heart & Soul of Essex project and hang at businesses and public buildings around town. 

3.Weaving Stories: Woven Heart Spots is a collection of stories and memories from residents of Paonia, Colorado. Artist Lane Taplin wove and silkscreened community members’ stories onto fabric with imagery and words.  The stories were also recorded so that gallery visitors could listen while they viewed the exhibition.  

4. Grafitti for Good: When youth in Cortez, Colorado, asked city officials if they could paint the city’s new skateboard park, essentially “tagging” the concrete, officials were excited that the skaters wanted to make the park their own. But they were also apprehensive about giving them free reign with spray paint. The artists agreed to submit their designs for approval. After the skateboard park project was complete, graffiti tagging incidents in town dropped dramatically.  Watch Video >>

5. Portraying the Community: Artist John Bakker collected photographs of a diverse group of Galesburg, Illinois, residents and over five months turned them into an assemblage of nearly 400 painted portraits. The intent was to create connections among local residents. Bakker incorporated mirrors in the work so that "residents whose portraits were not included—some take selfies surrounded by portraits—or future generations of viewers can see themselves in the context of their predecessors in Galesburg," he said.


Has your town tapped the arts for engagement? Tell us how!