Cornerstones Blog

Hometown Pride is Good for Business in McComb, Ohio

image of parade float

Business is picking up in McComb, Ohio (pop. 1,600). From a car dealer to a carpet store, merchants are feeling optimistic and opening shops.  In one month’s time eight ribbon cuttings will have taken place.

When has there been so much activity in this small town? There hasn’t, at least not in the past six decades.

“There hasn’t been anything happening downtown, because, as long as I can remember, it was a furniture store. When the furniture store went out, downtown was devastated,” said Joe Wasson, whose family owned Bennett’s Furniture Town. 

In 2013, Bennett’s closed. That left 50,000 square feet of retail space in 16 buildings vacant, right downtown.  Since then Wasson has been among those working to help write McComb’s next chapter. Wasson has been involved in economic development efforts and is project coordinator for a Community Heart & Soul™ project that kicked off a year ago.

On June 1 three ribbon cuttings were held:  Select Auto Group at the edge of downtown; Northwestern Water and Sewer District Water Shed, a place for people to fill jugs with drinking water;  and  Great Scot storage facility behind the Great Scot supermarket.

 In July ribbon cuttings are scheduled for Siferd’s Carpet, which moved back into a space it occupied about six years earlier; Bread & Butter Antiques, celebrating  renovations after a storm damaged its building; McComb Emporium, a group-owned antique and vintage goods store; Kayro’s Fine Art, an art studio where classes are also held; and Tees, Tees and More, a custom embroidery and retail shop. 

Holly Hanken, owner of Tees, Tees and More in downtown McComb, felt like the timing was right to start her business. She sensed good things happening around the Heart & Soul project and decided to take the plunge. So far, business is going better than she projected and she’s excited to be getting work locally and from out of town.

“It’s a good time for McComb. McComb is moving into its next phase of life cycle, definitely in a positive way,” Hanken said.

image of shop owner

It’s hard to say what factor or factors are contributing to McComb’s momentum, Wasson said. But McComb Region Heart & Soul, which is still underway, has helped foster a sense that local residents can steer change and that’s helped make people feel optimistic about the future.

“There’s a new sense of pride here in town. I can see that as I walk down any street. People are taking care of their yards a little better. It’s a whole sense of community,” Wasson said. “Heart and Soul’s been a big part of that. Would it have happened without Heart and Soul? I don’t know what path we’d be on, but it’s a byproduct of seeing that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that things are happening, and that we are in control of what happens to us.”


Where does a town turn after 44% of its tax base evaporates? Heart & Soul

image of mill  

Bucksport, Maine, is just off U.S. Route 1, the highway that takes millions of tourists along Maine’s famous coastline. Locals here sometimes quip that the secret to the town’s prosperity lies getting people to turn left off the major roadway. 

Tourists don’t turn in part because they are within striking distance of Bar Harbor, a popular destination.  Another reason is Bucksport’s most prominent waterfront feature is a behemoth paper mill, with boxy blue metal buildings and towering smoke stacks.

“There are 2.9 million visitors a year going to Bar Harbor. We have to figure out how to get them to turn left,” said Rich Rotella, Bucksport economic development director.

The left turn conundrum developed a new sort of urgency when the mill closed in December 2014, and about 44% of the town’s tax base evaporated. About 570 jobs were lost and roughly 160 of those were Bucksport residents, Rotella said. 

Last fall a group of residents, determined to chart a new course for the future, came together to create Bucksport Heart & Soul. The town dispatched Rotella to manage the Community Heart & Soul™ project.

Bucksport is a town of 5,000 at the head of Penobscot Bay.  Many residents commute to nearby towns of Belfast, Bangor, and Ellsworth for work. Main Street runs along the waterfront and is lined with locally-owned shops, including BookStacks, a book store/wine shop; Wahl’s Dairy Port, where people line up at the window for ice cream; MacLeod’s Restaurant; and the Alamo, a restored movie theater that is home to Northeast Historic Film, a non-profit devoted to archiving film from the region. Elegant 19th century clapboard homes, some with widows’ walks visible on rooftops, some showing the effects of coastal weather, overlook Main Street from the hill that rises steeply from the bay.

People like Leslie Wombacher see lots of possibility. Because of the mill, Bucksport has amenities one wouldn’t expect to find in a town its size, such as fire and police departments and a strong school system, she said.

“This town’s a lot more than that one address,” said Wombacher, referring to the mill. She is executive director of the Bucksport Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.

Today, much of the mill is being demolished. What happens next is a popular topic of conversation. With a power station, deep water port, rail service, and a natural gas line all serving the property, many see a unique opportunity for economic development on the 250-acre mill site.

Bucksport resident John Paul LaLonde, who worked as a wood buyer at the mill for more than three decades, is hopeful that Heart & Soul will make a lasting impact. Heart & Soul emphasizes reaching all residents, including those that don’t typically participate, and engaging them through unconventional means like block parties, story sharing, and pot-luck dinners.

He likes the idea that by reaching as many people as possible, and finding out what matters to them, a vision for Bucksport’s future will emerge that everyone can get behind. This vision will create a solid foundation for economic development, he said. He also would like to see Heart & Soul inspire new people, particularly younger residents, to get involved. He hopes that extensive community engagement becomes business as usual.

“I hope, in the future, Heart & Soul becomes a way of life in Bucksport--that the processes we use will be incorporated into how the community and town officials go about making decisions,” LaLonde said.

How One Town Set Out to Write a Plan that People Would Read

image of town plans

Not unlike most town plans, the Essex, Vermont, Town Plan was 280 pages long, mostly text with an occasional chart or graph. Not exactly a page turner.  When it came time to revise the plan, city officials decided to give it a makeover, and they looked to Community Heart & Soul™ for inspiration. 

Heart & Soul of Essex was a two-year project that offically wrapped up in 2014, though the organization continues to work for positive change in the community.

The 2016 Town Plan has a whole new look.  It’s less than half the size at 124 pages and features color photos, sidebars and graphics. The online version features links out to further documents and policy, which helped trim the document.

Content was revamped, too. The Heart & Soul of Essex vision statement and six Heart & Soul value statements are included. The first chapter is devoted to an action plan with goals, time frames, and cost estimates spelled out. In the old plan this section was buried at the back, without as much detail on delivery.

The plan won the Vermont Planners Association 2016 Town Plan of the Year award.

“Hands down, everybody thought it was far and away the best,” said Shanna Saunders, president of the New Hampshire Planners Association, the group responsible for judging plans. “The extent of public outreach they did really wowed people.”

In rethinking what a town plan could be, planners turned to the precedent and the plan created by Heart & Soul of Essex. 

 “We wanted to make the town plan distinctive, to make people feel they were a part of it,” said Dana Hanley, director of community development. “We wanted to do something really different that would make people actually read it, because everyone always tells us they never read the town plan.” 

Heart & Soul set a precedent for community engagement that meant both planners and residents were receptive to a participatory process, said Liz Subin, coordinator of the Heart & Soul of Essex. Planners held a photo and art contest to collect images for the plan and held meetings in neighborhoods to gather input.

“They really saw the opportunity for the plan to be something other than one that historically sits on the shelf, that nobody interacts with,” Subin said. “If it was a vibrant, living thing it could help them do their jobs and help the community feel more connected, and this plan does that.”

Best of all, Hanley is now hearing from residents who are reading the plan.


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.

At the Holidays the Importance of Place Comes Home


image of holiday tree


At this time of year, when we gather with loved ones, often returning to, or remembering, the places we hold dear, the reflections of Orton Family Foundation Trustee Ed McMahon on the importance of place seem especially apropos. Ed is senior resident fellow at Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.

We live in a world of rapid change: immigration, new technologies, global trade, instantaneous communication, changing consumer tastes, rapid movement of people, ideas, and goods, etc. However, if I have learned anything over 25 years in the community planning arena, it is this: change is inevitable, but the destruction of community character and identity is not. Progress does not demand degraded surroundings. Communities can grow without destroying the things people love.

Place is more than just a location or a spot on a map. A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics—visual, cultural, social and environmental—that provides meaning to a location. Sense of place is what makes one location (e.g. your hometown) different from another location (e.g. my hometown), but sense of place is also that which makes our physical surroundings valuable and worth caring about.

Land use planners spend too much time focusing on numbers—the number of units per acre, the number of cars per hour, the number of floors per building—and not enough time on the values, customs, characteristics, and quirks that make a place worth caring about. Unfortunately, many American communities are suffering the social, economic,  and environmental consequences of being places that simply aren’t worth caring about. The more one place (one location) comes to be just like every other place, the less reason there is to visit or invest. Just take tourism, for example: the more a community comes to look like every other community, the less reason there is to visit. On the other hand, the more a community does to enhance its distinctive identity, whether that is natural, cultural, or architectural, the more reasons there are to visit. Why? Because tourism is about visiting places that are different, unusual, or unique; if one place was just like everyplace else, there would be no reason to go anyplace.

Similarly, when it comes to 21st century economic development, a key concept is “community differentiation.” If you can’t differentiate your community from any other community, you have no competitive advantage. Capital is footloose in a global economy. Natural resources, highway access, locations along a river or rail line have all become less important. Richard Florida, a leading economic development authority and author of The Creative Class, has said, “How people think of a place is less tangible, but more important than just about anything else.”

Today, however, the subtle differences between places are fading and larger regional differences hardly exist. Now, if you were dropped along a road outside of most American cities or towns, you would not have the slightest idea where you were, because it all looks exactly the same: the building materials, the architectural styles, the chain stores, the outdoor advertising. Now building materials can be imported from anywhere. Hills can be flattened and streams put in culverts. We can transform the landscape with great speed and build anything that fits out budget or strikes our fancy. Technological innovation and a global economy make it easy for building plans drawn up at a corporate headquarters in New Jersey to be applied over and over again in Phoenix, Philadelphia, Portland or a thousand other communities. Over the past 40 years America’s commercial landscape has progressed from unique to uniform, from the stylized to the standardized.

Author Wallace Stegner once said, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who  you are.” We all need points of reference and orientation. A community’s unique identity provides that orientation, while also adding economic and social value to a place. To foster a sense of place, communities must plan for built environments and settlement patterns that are uplifting and memorable and that create a special feeling of belonging and stewardship by residents. A community also nurtures sense of place by understanding and respecting its natural context, such as rivers and streams, hills and forests, native flora and fauna, but also its community landmarks whether historic or unique.

This is what Community Heart & Soul™ is all about. It is about helping communities adapt to change while maintaining or enhancing the things they value most. It is both a process and a philosophy. The process seeks to engage as many citizens as possible in community decision making. The philosophy recognizes that special places, characteristics and customs have value. As Orton Family Foundation Founder Lyman Orton likes to say, “When a community takes the time to get to know itself, it gains a sense of identity and purpose that informs decisions about the future.”

Similarly, for me, heart and soul planning is about helping communities ask the question: “Do you want the character of your community to shape the new development or do you want the new development to shape the character of your community?”

Given the opportunity, I think I know how most communities will answer this question.


New! Storytelling Resource Now Online


Our new, free resource, Using Storytelling in Community Heart & Soul, offers a step-by-step approach to incorporating storytelling into your town’s Heart & Soul in a way that gets the information needed for meaningful results.

 Storytelling within Community Heart & Soul™:

1. Raises awareness and interest in Heart & Soul and brings community action to life;

2. Draws in new, underrepresented or difficult-to-reach voices;

3. Reveals what matters most to residents about the community;

4. Builds greater understanding, trust and relationships;

5. Heals divisions, bridges differences;

6. Brings meaning to local data, numbers, and community trends.

Using Storytelling in Community Heart & Soul is a companion resource to the Community Heart & Soul Field Guide

Download the resource »