Events

Finding Your Hometown’s Heartbeat: Community Engagement with Bouncy Castles, Beer Coasters, and Ball Games

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.

The Road to Resilience

Photos: www.mansfieldheliflight.com/flood/
Irene Damage - http://www.mansfieldheliflight.com/flood/On August 28, 2011, US Route 100 leading into the mountain town of Rochester, Vermont simply ended. And so did every other road leading in and out of town. That was the day Tropical Storm Irene washed away roads and bridges and homes throughout the region, leaving 13 towns cut off from the outside world. It was hours before anyone managed to get in or out of Rochester, and even then only by ATV and on foot. It was days before most people could communicate with anyone outside of town. It was weeks before power was restored and roads were passable to anyone other than emergency crews.

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Heart & Soul Principle 2: Explore Local Culture

This is the second post in a series that shows how our nine Heart & Soul Principles are coming to life on the ground in small towns across the country.

It has been said that only 10 percent of the culture of a place is seen, while the other 90 percent is unseen but expressed through habits and networks and how people interact.

This Principle is about paying attention to that 90 percent—to the peculiarities and richness of a singular place. It’s about taking time to question whether you’re really examining the culture of the whole community and not just the parts you already know (or thought you knew), and then applying that understanding to your project.

Here is the Principle:

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Reimagining America’s Streets

Americans’ expectations of our streets are changing. While we once saw streets exclusively as a means to move cars from one place to another as quickly as possible, we are increasingly recognizing them for what they are—our largest public space—and for what they can become—an opportunity to promote economic development, build community and even improve public health.

The Open Streets Project is leading this revolution in how we view and use streets. Also known as Ciclovias, Sunday Streets, Viva Streets (to name a few), Open Streets temporarily closes busy streets to automobiles so that people may use them for any activity but driving—walking, jogging, bicycling, dancing…name your physical activity—bringing thousands of people together to experience their city in a way that is normally forbidden.

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Building Community, One Slice at A Time

In celebration of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, Cornerstones is hungry to present a special pie post, by pie enthusiast and community artist, Josh Schachter.

I’m often late, though not for pie. But two seconds was all it took for me to miss the cut off for pie judging at the 32nd Annual Pie Festival in Pie Town, New Mexico, this fall.

My efforts to sweet talk the pie judge officials must not have been very discrete, as Pie Judge #15 immediately offered to give up her coveted spot to me. Knowing that she was about to enter Pie Heaven, I couldn’t bring myself to deprive her of this opportunity. Her kind offer reminded me of the generosity of spirit that pie instills in people and communities every day. After all, pie has slices for a reason; it is meant to be shared.

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Imagining North Adams

Every year, 120,000 people make a pilgrimage to the Northwestern corner of the Berkshires in Massachusetts and head for MASS MoCA.

They park next to the concrete channels of the Hoosic River and walk into a complex of historic brick mill buildings, repurposed as a world-class museum.

They spend a few hours, or a few days, exploring the cavernous galleries, and they collectively spend millions of dollars on tickets, souvenirs and gourmet food in the museum cafés.

What they usually don’t do is spend much of that time or money a block or two away—on Main Street. And it shows. While North Adams has made many efforts, and admirable progress, to reinvent itself as a vibrant arts community, its Main Street still struggles to fill up storefronts, local businesses struggle to stay afloat, and many residents struggle to find jobs and rise above the poverty line. (Check out this 2012 piece from NPR for the full story.)

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Celebrating the Re-opening of Doors

shickshinny_blogpic_400x300.jpgSara Grier is External Relations Manager for ShickshinnyForward.

Natural disasters bring a level of destruction to communities that is difficult to understand for those who have never experienced it.

While the physical ruination of shops, schools, homes and businesses takes an enormous toll, it is often the devastation of the emotional “soul” of a community that makes re-building such an uphill effort.

For the cities and towns along the Susquehanna River, the flood of September 2011 surpassed anything experienced in over 100 years. Shickshinny, PA, population 800, was one of the hardest hit communities. Since the flood, the town has not only drained basements and repaired roads; it has taken this opportunity to make itself “home” once again.

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If Your Community Were an Orchestra...

petridish_blog_225x225.jpgIf your community were an orchestra, what would it sound like?

This is a question the Brooklyn Philharmonic seems to be asking as it roamed the boroughs of New York City this summer. Led by a new artistic director, Alan Pierson (better known for his work with Alarm Will Sound), the Philharmonic has decided to take the show on the road—a nomadic impulse you wouldn’t expect from an orchestra. And the program changes to reflect the culture of each neighborhood they visit. From a New Yorker article on the subject:

“In the Russian-speaking precincts of Brighton Beach, the orchestra played Soviet-era cartoon scores. In the sleek enclave of Dumbo, the orchestra featured pop-based musicians who are trying out classical techniques….”

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