Cornerstones Blog

Five Things You Can Do Today to Start Discovering Your Town's Heart & Soul


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:

  • Drive a different way home to check out new neighborhoods.
  • Take a walk during lunch hour and observe your surroundings.  Notice the sidewalks, buildings, trees, houses, green spaces, a river or other natural features and consider whether they benefit your community or detract from it.

2.  Step out of your comfort zone:

  • Sincerely compliment a stranger.
  • Ride the bus (if you don’t already—if so, a different line) and do some people watching.
  • Go to an event such as a festival or game dinner that you have never experienced.  Who is there you’ve never met? Do you run into friends you haven’t seen in months or even years? Did you feel welcome?

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!

Here's the webinar:

A Day to Remember Heart & Soulmates


On Valentine's Day, Albert and Elizabeth Conary of Gardiner, Maine, come to mind. The couple was honored with Gardiner's Heart & Soulmate Award last year for their devotion to Gardiner. Every day, the couple makes the rounds to downtown shops. Here they are on Water Street on June 5, 2013 in downtown Gardiner. Image: Joe Phelan.

Ohio Town Selected as First Community Heart & Soul™ Project in Midwest

image of McComb

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.

Free Events in February Focus on Engaging Residents to Shape Change

Two free events this month hosted by Orton are aimed at building better communities through empowering residents to plan their future based on what matters most to them. Please join us!

The first event, on February 12, is part of the new Heart & Soul Talks conference call series and is focused on Community Network Analysis, Orton’s engagement tool that helps bring fresh, new voices and solutions to the table and is a powerful way to reach and understand who lives, works and plays in a town.

The second event, on February 26, is a Heart & Soul Training webinar that offers an overview of and insight into Community Heart & Soul™, a results-oriented and successful approach to community development and planning.

“Involve everyone is a tenet of Community Heart & Soul. Whether you are interested in learning about one specific tool to improve participation or are looking to hear more about Orton’s comprehensive approach to community development and planning, these events will help you along the path to building a better community,” said Alece Montez-Griego, Orton’s programs director.

Here is the schedule:

12 Great Reads to Add to Your List

The Center for Rural Entrepreneurship shared its list of top reads of 2014. Included on the list is the Community Heart & Soul™ Field Guide recommended by Erik Pages, a CRE fellow and president and founder of EntreWorks Consulting, an economic development and policy development firm who said: "This is an excellent guide to strategic planning and community building for small towns."  

Thank you Erik!  Lots of great reads to add to our holiday wish lists! 

Here are the center's Top 12 Recommended Reads of 2014:

Recommended by Erik Pages, EntreWorks Consulting and Center Fellow: The Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly. While the book is mainly about international development issues, it's a useful caution that economic development is about individual choice and empowerment - not the latest scheme from so-called "experts."

Recommended by Don Macke: Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. This book provides both a framework for exploring the innovation process and wonderful stories of innovation. Check out Johnson's program on Public Broadcasting.

Recommended to Deb Markley by Angela Lust, Amarillo Area Foundation: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. This book is a true story of innovation under the most challenging circumstances. Inspiring!

Recommended by Erik Pages, EntreWorks Consulting and Center Fellow: Community Heart & Soul Field Guide by the Orton Family Foundation. This is an excellent guide to strategic planning and community building for small towns.

Recommended by all Center staff: The Good Jobs Strategy - How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profit by Zeynep Ton. This book provides great case evidence that the race to the bottom need not be the rule as businesses struggle to be competitive.

Recommended by Don Macke: Owning Our Future - The Emerging Ownership Revolution and Journeys to a Generative Economy by Marjorie Kelly. For those of us engaged in entrepreneurship as a means to better economies, this is a must read.

Recommended by Erik Pages, EntreWorks Consulting and Center Fellow: Fueling Up—The Economic Implications of America's Oil and Gas Boom by the Peterson Institute, an economic impact study of shale energy. Not the most scintillating read, but great data that encourages us to be cautious and realistic about the "shale energy revolution."

Recommended by Travis Starkey, a millennial and educator in eastern North Carolina:  "Creative Class Counties and the Recovery." This Daily Yonder article shows the value of the "creative class" to the economic recovery in some parts of rural America. 

Recommended by Don Macke: The End of the Suburbs by Leigh Gallagher. This book provides interesting insight on the changing spatial demographics in the United States. 

Recommended by Deb Markley: Sources of Economic Hope: Women's Entrepreneurship. This Kauffman Foundation research report suggests why accelerating women's entrepreneurship might be the best thing we can do for the U.S. economy. 

Recommended by Don Macke: The Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton. This book provides insight from the Chairman of Gallup and their unique international view of global competition. 

Recommended by Don Macke: What Then Must We Do? - Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution by Gar Alperovitz. Rooted in the value that economies exist to meet the needs and dreams of residents, this book provides insights worth considering as we engage in economic development.

Community Heart & Soul™ Launches in Laconia, New Hampshire


In Laconia, New Hampshire, residents have been busy imagining the future of their lakeside city. They’ve weighed in at pop-up parks. They’ve shared their ideas on drink coasters and sticky notes, and over 100 turned out for a community meeting to voice their opinions about what matters most for their city.

Re-Imagine Laconia, got underway this summer. The objective of the Community Heart & Soul™ project here is to identify community values and use those values to inform a revision of Laconia’s Master Plan. Partners in Re-Imagine Laconia are NH Listens, a nonprofit devoted to fostering community engagement, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, and Orton.

“It’s been amazing to reach out to such a broad cross section of local residents in new ways. There is definite pride of place in Laconia from the Weirs to Lakeport to Downtown. Re-Imagine Laconia is getting residents to think about what matters most about their city,” said Shanna B.  Saunders, director of Planning, Zoning and Code Enforcement in Laconia.

Laconia is a small city (pop. 17,060) in central New Hampshire distinguished by the four bodies of water that either border the city or are within city limits—Lake Winnipesaukee, Paugus Bay, Lake Opechee, and Lake Winnisquam. The natural beauty of the lakes and surrounding mountains draws visitors and seasonal residents making tourism important to the Lakes Region’s economy.

Like many New England mill towns, Laconia, once a regional hub of industry and commerce, has seen its economy erode over the years. Commercial development outside its borders, the seasonality of tourism, and an unemployment rate that is twice the state average have all posed challenges.

image of youth comments

Laconia is in Phase 2 of Heart & Soul, which is about discovering what the community cares about—its shared values. In addition to face-to-face interviews, organizers have gathered input in a number of creative ways including transforming parking places in high-traffic areas into pop-up patios and printing up drink coasters that asked, “How would you Re-Imagine Laconia?”  The drink coasters were distributed to local restaurants and shared by residents at their backyard barbeques.  So far, revitalizing the downtown area and Weirs Beach neighborhood are themes, as is fostering vibrant businesses and supporting entrepreneurs through services such as an incubator for food-related enterprises.

 In October, NH Listens facilitated a meeting that was attended by 100 residents, nearly four times the typical public meeting turnout in Laconia. Attendees were divided into groups with the goal of having a conversation related to:

  • Laconia’s unique natural beauty and cultural character;
  • Public infrastructure and transportation;
  • Historic, social and cultural resources;
  • Housing diversity and business prosperity;
  • Local assets important to Laconia’s future economic progress;
  • And any other input on what Laconia values and how to turn that into a thriving future.

When each group reported out, several themes were clear, said meeting facilitator Bruce Mallory, director of NH Listens.

“It was very gratifying to support this community conversation and watch the ideas emerge from the participants who came from all walks of life to express their own views and hear from their neighbors,” Mallory said. “The converging themes of affirming a positive image of the city, enhancing economic development (especially through engagement of younger professionals), strengthening social ties, and taking advantage of the area’s natural resources will provide the city with a clear roadmap for renewing its master plan.”

Watch a video about Laconia's launch:

Send Us Your #MyTownMatters Photo. You Could Win a $25 Gift Card!

Here at the Orton Family Foundation we love small towns and we know that each town’s uniqueness is what makes it special. That’s why our signature Community Heart & Soul™ method of community planning and development puts local character front and center.

To celebrate small town places, and small town people, we’d like to invite you to join our  #MyTownMatters photo contest. Each week, through November 25, we’ll draw one lucky winner of a $25 gift card to the Vermont Country Store!

All you need to do is take a selfie, or have someone snap a pic of you, in your favorite spot and share it with us via social media using #MyTownMatters. You can use Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram. For us to see the post it needs to be public. You can also email your image to:

For inspiration, here are Orton staffers reading the Community Heart & Soul Field Guide in their favorite local spots!

Find all the #MyTownMatters photos along with our Official Rules at

We look forward to seeing your photo!

image of D Leckey reading


Putting Heart & Soul Into Words (and Action)

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:

  • In Biddeford, Maine, Heart & Soul contributed to a solid community plan that sparked revitalization. In the past nine months, 144,000 square feet have been leased in a former mill, something that was expected to take two years. There are now 85 businesses in the mill complex. On Main Street, 19 new businesses have moved in in the past two years.
  • Cortez, Colorado has created trusting and productive relationships with community members. Kirsten Sackett, director of planning and building said, “They’re understanding more about what the city does. I’m understanding their needs more. … It’s not so much about process and paperwork anymore.”
  • When a controversial proposal to change how the town votes on its budget came up, the city council in Essex, Vermont turned to Heart & Soul of Essex to take the lead in organizing a community-wide conversation on the issue, moving it from conflict to consensus.

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.

David Leckey

Executive Director