Heart & Soul

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.

USDA Awards $48K for Community Heart & Soul in Iowa


The Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque received a one-year, $48,037 Rural Business Development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a Community Heart & Soul project in Bellevue, Iowa.

As announced by USDA Rural Development Under Secretary Lisa Mensah, this is one of eight grants totaling $300,000 awarded to projects in rural Iowa.

“We are proud to serve the needs of rural people and places to ensure that rural America continues to thrive and to drive the economy,” Mensah said. “We are very happy to be a partner with all the communities we serve as they work hard to make investments that will impact many future generations.”

Rural Business Development grants provide targeted technical assistance, training and other activities to assist with the development or expansion of small and emerging businesses in rural America.

The Community Heart & Soul project in Bellevue will focus on economic opportunity, strategic planning, and investment in the community’s future. Community Foundation staff will partner with community leaders to discover what matters most to rural residents, to involve more residents in decision-making about the future of their community, and to help build a future-focused culture around residents’ shared beliefs.

“USDA funding provides the opportunity for a community-based planning process. A plan is a critical element in beginning to look at a community’s future. The Jackson County Economic Alliance is very excited to partner with the Community Foundation and the citizens of the Bellevue area on this initiative,” said David Heiar, Jackson County Economic Alliance director.

Tom Meyer, Bellevue Community School District superintendent, will be helping to organize youth involvement in the project.

"Bellevue is an amazing and progressive community, and is always searching for ways to make more opportunities available for our community members and youth. Bellevue is a great place, with great things to offer," Meyer said.

The Community Foundation has already implemented Heart & Soul in Monticello, Iowa, with support from the Rural Community Development Initiative program, a two-year USDA grant awarded to the Community Foundation in 2014.

“We look forward to partnering with community leaders in Bellevue to encourage job creation and retention, rural philanthropy, youth engagement and a culture of entrepreneurship,” said Nancy Van Milligen, Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque president and chief executive officer. “The USDA has been a strong ally in this work and we are grateful for its continued support.”

Monticello, Iowa: Building on Assets for a Better Future

image of downtown Monticello

The best five days of summer happen in late July in a small Iowa town called Monticello. That’s when the Great Jones County Fair comes to town and the town’s population can swell from 3,500 to 35,000, particularly when one of the headline music acts takes the stage.

“Some businesses close down on Main Street because everybody’s going to the fair. Organizations won’t plan meetings during that week,” said Jean Sullivan, who is project coordinator for Monticello Heart & Soul and co-pastor of the United Church of Monticello.

While the fair is what puts Monticello on the map, day-to-day life here is much like anywhere. There’s great affection for small town life and, like many places, there’s a desire to see a future that honors Monticello’s unique character while making it an even better place to live.

Monticello’s Community Heart & Soul™ project started in the spring of 2015 in partnership with Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, and is envisioned as the first of several Heart & Soul projects in the region aimed at helping towns assess their assets and make decisions that enrich the community.

“We are looking to Monticello to be a model for Community Heart & Soul in other towns in our region,” said Nancy Van Milligen, president and chief executive of the community foundation. “Finding out what matters most through Community Heart and Soul will help increase the impact of philanthropy. This can help direct dollars toward the greatest needs, not only in Monticello but eventually throughout the region.”

Monticello has a diverse economic base of agriculture, manufacturing and small, locally owned businesses. The approximately 14 industries in town include injection molding, hydraulics, steel building manufacturing, and custom sewing and design.

Young people are moving back to start businesses and families. Monticello also offers the chance to live in a quiet rural area and commute to the larger towns of Dubuque and Cedar Rapids. There’s a strong tradition of volunteerism centered around Camp Courageous, which provides experiences for 6,000 disabled campers a year. Community members pitch in to raise money for the local nonprofit, including making fruitcakes for the holidays. New people have moved into the area, introducing more ethnic and racial diversity than before.

With all of this positive change happening residents also articulate challenges including, making the downtown more vibrant, repairing a school and finding ways for more bike paths and recreational use of the river that flows through town. In addition, use of the food pantry has increased, and residents want to understand the factors driving that demand.

“The Heart and Soul process is being used to revitalize efforts around planning and to engage an even broader audience in the planning process,” Sullivan said. “We are looking for input on priorities for whatever is next in Monticello’s future.”

Monticello Heart & Soul is expected to wrap up later this year. The Heart & Soul Team will lead the effort to engage residents in prioritizing next steps for a bright future and set a course for action based on what matters most.

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A Fresh Start in a Town that Maytag Left Behind

image of student speaking

Community leaders and residents of Galesburg, Illinois, have launched a Community Heart & Soul project, taking the first steps in creating a roadmap to renewal for the former manufacturing city in the northwest central part of the state.

Community Heart & Soul got underway with a gathering of 200 community members who turned out to hear the results of more than a dozen focus groups representing the city’s rich diversity.  The project is a collaboration between the Galesburg Community Foundation and the city of Galesburg.

“We are excited to see Galesburg Heart & Soul hit the ground running,” Orton Family Foundation Executive Director David Leckey said. “In Galesburg, we see a strong community infrastructure to build on that includes the Galesburg Community Foundation, the city of Galesburg and community leaders and residents, all ready to roll up their sleeves and focus on a future built on Galesburg’s strengths and what matters most to everyone.”

Galesburg (pop. 32,000) is 50 miles south of the Quad Cities area of Illinois and Iowa and is home to nationally ranked Knox College and a major rail hub for BNSF Railway Co. Galesburg was the site of a Maytag refrigerator manufacturing plant that closed in 2004, a loss of 5,000 jobs.  

Heart & Soul Galesburg got started last fall hosting 17 focus groups for residents to share their hopes, concerns and dreams for the city. The conversations, which were recorded by Galesburg High School students, set the stage for community engagement that includes everyone by drawing on a diverse array of residents including: farmers, African Americans, railroad workers, medical professionals, Hispanics and Latinos, faith groups, low income people, students, artists, and young professionals.  

“Our community is ready to take on the Heart & Soul process, which is very exciting and encouraging,” Joshua Gibb, executive director of the Galesburg Community Foundation said. “Galesburg residents are ready to take an active role in creating positive change that transforms our community for the better and for our future. We have a lot to be proud of here, and by participating in the Heart & Soul process we will have even more to be proud of.”

Community Heart & Soul is a community development approach that has helped transform small towns across the country by bringing residents together to determine what they value most about their town and getting people to see strengths and possibilities where they may have seen obstacles. Heart & Soul lays out a roadmap that leads to concrete actions that make positive change. Heart & Soul is organized by and carried out by local residents working toward achievable actions, some of which can be undertaken right away and others initiated for the long term. 

Humanities with Heart & Soul: Four PA Towns Selected for Humanities-focused Community Development Grants


The Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) has awarded civic engagement grants to four communities in the Keystone state for Community Heart & Soul™ projects focused on humanities-based approaches to community planning and development.

In total PHC awarded $150,000 for Community Heart & Soul projects in Carlisle, Meadville, Williamsport, and the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia.

“We believe the humanities can inspire people to come together and make a difference in their communities,” said Laurie Zierer, PHC’s executive director. “With storytelling at the heart of planning and development, local values and voices become the foundation for building communities that are connected, innovative, competitive, and strong.”

The Orton Family Foundation will support the projects by providing guidance and training to PHC. The projects are viewed as pilots for additional towns in Pennsylvania and potential partnerships with other humanities organizations.

The Greater Carlisle Project and the Revitalization Authority of the City of Meadville will each receive $50,000. Germantown United Community Development Corporation and Susquehanna Greenway Partnership will receive $25,000. All four communities will incorporate elements of the humanities, including storytelling, into their planning processes.

“By helping residents identify what matters most, we have seen Community Heart & Soul transform towns across the country into better versions of themselves. We are excited to be partnering with PHC to plant the seed for positive change in communities across Pennsylvania, as well,” said David Leckey, executive director, Orton Family Foundation.

For more information about PHC’s civic engagement grants and four current grant communities, click here.

How Heart & Soul and Hard Cider Preserved a Church


image of cider house

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.

Crooked Halo Cider House is scheduled to open on October 10 during Gardiner’s Swine and Stein Oktoberfest event. 

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. 

A Food Hub With Heart & Soul in Polson, Montana

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. 

Heart & Soul Minute: A Co-op with Heart & Soul in Polson, Montana from Orton Family Foundation on Vimeo.

Keying in on What Matters Most

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.”