For the residents of Gardiner, Maine, preserving and reusing older buildings, such as former schools, churches and a nursing home, emerged as a priority in their Community Heart & Soul™ project. One building in particular stood out—a stately Congregational church built in 1843 on Church Street at the edge of downtown. Vacant for a half dozen years, a blue tarp on the roof signaled distress.
Over recent years, the Gardiner Planning Board had several times proposed zoning regulations that would allow buildings like the church to be rezoned and repurposed for commercial use, but each time the Gardiner City Council, which had the final say, said no. Heart & Soul changed that, said Debby Willis, planning board chairwoman.
“This time we had heard enough from the constituents that the city council felt confident that, in voting for such a change, they were meeting the needs and wants of citizens. They wouldn’t have heard from the citizens without Heart and Soul,” Willis said.
The city adopted a special zoning designation, called Adaptive Reuse Overlay District that allowed, on a case-by-case basis, buildings built before 1964 to be repurposed. The buildings had to be in the town’s high-density residential neighborhoods but could not be residential.
Restaurateur and brewer David Boucher was first in line with an application. He bought the Congregational church for $100,250, and planned a hard cider brewery and tasting room.
“It had gorgeous stained glass. It still has the pipe organ. It has a lot of unique features you just don’t get in a new building,” Boucher said “I actually started restructuring the overall scope and vision of this company around this church.”
That meant leasing additional space in Gardiner for the bulk of his brewing operation when he learned that the church’s floors would not support massive brewing tanks. Boucher, who is quick to point out he was raised Catholic and attended parochial school, also formulated his brand playing on a church theme. He changed his brand from Crabby Apple Cider to Crooked Halo Cider. His flagship cider will be named Genesis with plans for other ciders to be named Absolution, Penance and Blasphemy.
Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett sees a win-win in the reuse of the church. An historic building will be kept in good condition, and a new business will help the local economy. The business anticipates creating eight jobs in the next year. He also credits Heart & Soul for placing historic buildings high on the city’s list of priorities.
“We hope it becomes something that lures people in and gives people who don’t know Gardiner a reason to come here and gives people who know Gardiner a reason to spend more time here. When you spend time, hopefully you spend money,” Harnett said.
Putting food from local farm fields onto dinner tables in Polson, Montana, (pop. 5,000) is about healthy eating and a whole lot more.
The Polson Food Hub, part of the Montana Co-op, is a place where people not only pick up locally produced food, they might also stop by to take boxing lessons, make salsa, learn how to mix and record music or try traditional tribal dance.
The community-minded approach at the Co-op was guided by the Community Heart & Soul™ project that took place there from 2012 to 2014, said Jason Moore, president and founder of the Co-op.
“During my first few meetings as a Heart and Soul volunteer, I kept hearing the word ‘collaboration.’ This has a very similar meaning to cooperation, so I felt the importance of working on this project,” Moore recalled.
Moore headed up a Heart & Soul committee that held 19 neighborhood gatherings, and he observed lots of overlap between what the Co-op aspired to and what Polson residents envisioned for their community. Better access to locally grown food was just one the shared aspirations.
“When the Montana Co-op was looking for Food Hub locations in Polson, we were looking for a building that could not just support local food growth. We looked at the values people presented during the Heart & Soul program,” Moore said. “The number one item mentioned during Heart & Soul gatherings was that Polson needed a place for the kids to hang out; an activity and event center. Along the way, we met other community partners that had a passion for health, youth outreach, and community connectivity. These people have further developed the Montana Co-op’s mission to bring people together to create easy and affordable access to local food and Montana-made products. We’re now fulfilling many other needs of the community, with exercise, education classes, and getting our youth hooked on good things.”
Here is a summary of the areas in which the Co-op aligns with needs identified by Polson residents as part of their Heart & Soul project:
Heart & Soul Action: Offer a facility that brings people together. Build an event center for year-round activities and events. Host more community-wide educational events, including art/cultural events and activities.
Jason Moore: The Co-op includes an activity center for all ages with diverse events and education programming. We have created a place for the kids to hang out and get hooked on good things.
H&S Action: Bring tribal and non-tribal residents together in economic ventures and cultural cooperation.
JM: The tribal mural on the outside of the Co-op building is one example. The Co-op is also working with the tribe on projects targeting at-risk youth and developing cultural reconnections and classes to enhance Native American heritage.
H&S Action: Develop a plan for filling up the closed storefronts downtown.
JM: The Co-op is in the early stages of fulfilling a plan to contribute to reopening more closed storefronts. This plan includes an incubator that supports new and existing businesses with all types of start-up and development services including accounting, marketing, operations, technology, and administrative support.
H&S Action: Teach job skills that can provide a local skilled workforce after
high school graduation.
JM: The Kids Co-op offers classes including music, art, robotics, aerial gymnastics, career identification, nutrition, food preparation, and business classes.
Watch a video about the Food Hub.
In Laconia, New Hampshire, nearly 100 residents turned out recently to weigh in on the things that matter most to them about their lakeside town.
Laconia is in the midst of a Community Heart & Soul ™ project called Reimagine Laconia that aims to inform the town's master plan. In the months leading up to the community meeting, volunteers fanned out across the community gathering stories and input from a broad range of residents in the city’s three main neighborhoods. The aim now was to learn how well the emerging Heart & Soul themes were aligning with community sentiment.
Using keypad polling, attendees were asked to rank ten shared Heart & Soul themes: community character; sense of community; connectivity; a healthy, beautiful environment; a strong economy; an engaging responsible accessible government; demographic diversity; a safe community; quality of life; a positive story.
Getting answers and seeing results in real time engaged the audience, turning observers into participants in a way that would have been challenging with a group this size. Keypad polling also allowed everyone and every viewpoint to be “heard,” even those not comfortable speaking at a public meeting.
The polling showed that three community themes rose to the top: a strong economy; a healthy, beautiful environment; a safe community. These were also the three areas that respondents felt the city could make progress on in the near future.
Overall, the meeting affirmed that the Heart & Soul team was on the right track in characterizing Laconia’s heart and soul. The event also yielded another positive outcome, perhaps less expected.
“Judging from our feedback, the most valuable aspect of the keypad polling event was the transparent process,” said Brandee Loughlin, assistant planner with the city. “People really liked witnessing the results in real-time, right in front of them. It went a long way to building that trust in the process and in the information we had been sharing.”
Did you catch our Heart & Soul Training: Intro to Building Better Communities on February 26th? If not you can watch the webinar. (See below.)
Intro to Building Better Communities provides an overview of Community Heart & Soul and how it transforms rural towns and small cities with our signature barn-raising approach to community planning and development.
In the meantime, here are some things you can do NOW to set you on the path to discovering your community’s heart and soul.
Here are five things you can do today:
1. Start noticing who and what makes up your community. Go outside of your usual patterns:
2. Step out of your comfort zone:
3. Start noticing how the people in your community fall into different groups, clubs, and faith based organizations, etc. Observe how and if they interact and communicate.
4. Invite your friends and/or colleagues to coffee (or even an adult beverage) to learn what they love about where they live and how they'd like to make it better.
5. Download the free Community Heart & Soul Field Guide! http://fieldguide.orton.org/main-sign-up2
Here's the webinar:
McComb, Ohio has been selected for a Community Heart & Soul™ project, the foundation’s first Midwestern town. Orton is partnering with the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation on the two-year community development project.
McComb, a small town in northwest Ohio, was selected in a competitive process to receive a $130,000 Community Foundation grant for the project. The project is envisioned as a pilot for future partnerships between the Community Foundation and towns and villages in the county, Orton Family Foundation Executive Director David Leckey said.
“I’d like to congratulate the townspeople of McComb on being selected for a Community Heart & Soul project. We look forward to working closely with McComb residents and Community Foundation staff to ensure a process that involves everyone in the community and lays a solid foundation for planning McComb’s future based on what matters most to the people who live there,” said Leckey, who is a native of Hancock County where McComb is located. “This project launches a strategy to have the Community Foundation facilitate Community Heart & Soul projects in additional towns in the county.”
Community Heart & Soul is an approach to community development and planning developed by the Orton Family Foundation that increases participation in local decision-making and invites residents to shape the future of their communities based on what matters most to them.
Hancock County (pop. 74,782) is in a predominantly agricultural area of northwest Ohio, about 50 miles south of Toledo. The county is comprised of 10 villages varying in population from approximately 200 to 1,600 that lie within 17 townships. Findlay, where the Community Foundation is based, is the county seat and the largest community in the county with a population of 41,202. McComb’s population, including another village and two townships that comprise the local school district, is approximately 4,000. The largest industry in the town is Hearthside Food Solutions, a contract maker of baked goods.
In McComb’s proposal townspeople expressed a readiness to focus on revitalizing the downtown. The Heart & Soul Committee evaluating proposals saw McComb at a crucial juncture, Community Foundation President Katherine Kreuchauf said.
“With infrastructure in place and poised for growth, including a water tower slated for completion in June and a wastewater treatment plant with ample capacity, McComb is at a potential pivot point. We felt this was a crucial moment in McComb’s history and that Heart & Soul could really help the village to shape its future with involvement from everyone in the community,” Kreuchauf said. “The Hancock County Heart & Soul application and site visit process was inspiring. Hancock County is vibrant and full of people who care deeply about their communities. Choosing the first Hancock County Heart & Soul community was a difficult decision. We are very excited about the Heart & Soul partnership with McComb.”
The McComb Community Heart & Soul project is funded by a two-year, $136,420 grant from the Community Foundation and with staff support from Orton and the Community Foundation. McComb will be eligible for training and technical assistance in addition to the grant and will contribute 1,500 hours of volunteer time as a match.
It can be hard to put into words—the magic that happens when Community Heart & Soul™ takes hold in a town.
Sometimes we refer to “it” as the secret sauce. “It” is also the tipping point when people go from focusing on what’s wrong with their town to seeing what’s possible. “It” is when a developer senses that good things are happening in a place and decides to invest in a vacant building downtown. “It” is when a longtime resident realizes her town is worth her time and runs for city council. “It” is when storytelling builds a bridge to a group that has traditionally been isolated.
“It” is Community Heart & Soul.
The transformative power of Community Heart & Soul can be tough to describe, but the steps to get there are now clearly spelled out in our new Community Heart & Soul™ Field Guide.
After nearly a decade of listening, learning, refining, and listening some more, with our staff on the ground in small towns in New England and the Rocky Mountain West, the Orton Family Foundation is ready to share with you our field-tested method that leads to stronger towns.
Our Field Guide, available as a free download, spells out step-by-step how to inspire residents to shape the future of their communities, based on what matters most to them.
We know it works. We’ve seen the results. Here are a few examples:
The Community Heart & Soul approach sets the stage for new leaders to emerge. Liz Subin, former coordinator of Essex Heart & Soul, decided to run for state legislature in Vermont. Golden, Colorado City Councilor Saoirse Charis-Graves never envisioned herself running for office until Heart & Soul helped her see how she could make a difference.
This is a small sample of the positive results that illustrate the transformative power of Community Heart & Soul. Maybe your town is next.
To learn more, please join us for a free Heart & Soul Matters talk, Community Heart & Soul: Building a Blueprint for Successful Small Towns from 4-5 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, Nov 5. You’ll hear from me and Director of Programs Alece Montez-Griego with an overview of the approach. Heart & Soul veterans Mike Bestor, city manager, Golden, Colorado, and Delilah Poupore, executive director of Heart of Biddeford, will also be on hand to discuss how Heart & Soul has strengthened their towns. Click here to learn more and register.
Meantime, whether you are a city planner, elected official or a resident concerned about your town’s future, I hope you will take a moment to download the Field Guide and start the conversation about strengthening the social, cultural and economic vibrancy of your town.
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: