Cornerstones Blog

Teens Bring Fresh Perspectives to Local Boards & Commissions


Have you ever contemplated how to get young people more involved in your community? One way is to include youth on town boards and committees. Several towns that we have worked with did just that and are in agreement about the benefits of having fresh perspectives at the table.

In Manchester, Vermont, high school students joined local boards and commissions in 2007 as part of a youth engagement project with Orton. Students are appointed to the Planning Commission, Design Review Board, Development Review Board, Parks & Recreation Committee, Conservation Commission, Energy Committee and the Library Board. They serve as full voting members on all but two of the boards, which, for legal reasons, do not allow minors to vote.

 Lee Krohn, who was city planner when students were first appointed, recalled how well received the new voices were, and that their input was valuable.

“On the Development Review Board, there were times when a student suggested a change in a site plan that made good sense, and was accepted by both the board and the applicants. In other cases, there were times when a student’s ideas and arguments changed other members’ minds about cases,” Krohn said.

The experience in Cortez, Colorado, has been similar, said Shane Hale, city manager. One result of the Heart & Soul process there was that students were given seats with full voting privileges on the Parks and Recreation Board, Golf Course Advisory Committee and the Library Advisory Board. Giving young people meaningful roles has been key to winning their involvement, Hale said.

“I believe that the work that we do in local government does matter, and that the best way to show our youth that we're worth their time is to give them the opportunity to see their local government at work and to engage in our decision-making at a meaningful level,”  Hale said. “We do genuinely value the opinions of our youth members, and I believe that their involvement on our boards will be a legacy outcome of the Heart & Soul process.”

Shelburne, Vermont, took a chapter from Manchester and this summer opened the town’s boards and commissions to students. The seats are non-voting, but each board has two slots for students, a best practice borrowed from Manchester that’s designed to boost participation, said Joe Colangelo, Shelburne town manager.  

“So far I’ve really only heard very positive feedback from the quote, unquote adults on the committees. They are very appreciative, and some have been blown away by the ability levels. There’s some good ideas coming and it’s been positive,” Colangelo said.

In addition to having fresh ideas and new perspectives on city issues, Hale sees the opportunity to plant the seed for future civic engagement.

 “It’s my hope that some of our high school board members will one day come back to run for city council or will pursue careers in local government,” Hale said.

Waterfront Concerts, Just One Way This Maine Town Rocks

As synonymous with summer as ice cream and swimming holes, outdoor concerts are a sure sign of longer days and kinder temperatures in this part of the country. In Gardiner, Maine, they also signal  revitalization in a town that, like many throughout the region, has struggled for decades to fuel its economy and keep its downtown vibrant.

The waterfront concerts aren’t the only thing rocking in this small town (pop. 5,700) on the Kennebec River, 45 minutes north of Portland. The new local food co-op just got a grant to fund educational programs, farm-to-table efforts continue to grow, and the arts are thriving as documented in a newly released film.  Gardiner wrapped up a two-year Community Heart & Soul™ project in 2014.

"It's clearly momentum and it's palpable," said Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett. "I feel this is the most exciting time in the city of Gardiner since I moved here in 1992. What's great is we are seeing it throughout the city."

Here are a signs of Gardiner's new found momentum:

  • Waterfront concert series.  Four concerts were underwritten by a local non-profit and sponsored by several local businesses. The series was revived last year with help from a $2,000 grant that was part of a $25,000 grant from Orton that enabled Gardiner to take action on projects prioritized during Gardiner’s Heart & Soul project. 
  • Educational programs. The Gardiner Food Co-op & Cafe was one of 40 top vote-getting communities, out of nationwide pool of 200 finalists, and was awarded a $25,000 Neighbor Assist grant from State Farm Insurance. The co-op, which opened this year, will support educational programs with the funds.
  • Farm-to-table food.  A weekly farmers' market is supporting locally grown food and the town just welcomed the first USDA fresh chicken processing plant in the state. A plant for beef, lamb and pork is slated to come on line, as well.  A craft hard cider maker opened in a vacant warehouse and will also operate out of a church that had fallen into disrepair. The Co-op, the beef, lamb and pork facility, and the cider operation received federal Community Development Block Grants in excess of $500,000.
  • Arts documentary. Creating Gardiner, by local filmmaker Lee Arnott, focuses on eight artists—visual, performance and culinary artists—with diverse backgrounds and showcases arts venues throughout the town. The film was locally underwritten by the Gardiner Creativity Fund, inspired by the work of Heart & Soul. Watch the trailer here: 

Creating Gardiner from Lee Arnott on Vimeo.

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.

Saving Main Street: Eleven Ideas for Spurring Investment in Downtown Businesses

Does it feel like every time you walk downtown one more storefront is vacant? Combating the downward momentum of vacancy and neglect is no easy feat. Here are eleven ideas for spurring investment in downtown businesses that can put your town on a path toward revitalization.

  1. Establish a business-to-business marketplace.  The Let’s Do Business, Tulsa! online directory matches local buyers with local sources, helping businesses gain exposure, build sales, and save money.
  2. Host a pitchfest. Pitchfests showcase local entrepreneurs, connecting them with local investors and community members. See a showcase in action—watch this video from Seacoast Local’s first entrepreneur showcase.
  3. Launch a Downtown Development Revolving Loan Fund. Revolving loan funds can spur commercial redevelopment by offering below-market rate financing to municipalities and downtown authorities to fund capital projects.
  4. Organize a "Let’s Paint the Town” initiative. Princeton, Kentucky invited business owners and volunteers to roll up their sleeves and participate in downtown revitalization by restoring and painting building facades.
  5. Offer co-working space for startups and telecommuters. Veel Hoeden, a co-working space in rural Pella, Iowa, brings home-based professionals and independent contractors together under one roof.
  6. Create a community investment cooperative. The Sangudo Opportunity Development Co-operative in Alberta, Canada collects local money by selling membership and investment shares to community members. Funds are used to buy, rehab, and manage commercial and residential property.
  7. Link downtown businesses through technology. Dubbed the “internet of small businesses”, Supportland creates mini networks for attracting and retaining local customers.
  8. Build a local investing network. Local Investing Opportunities Network (LION) in East Jefferson County, Washington is a member-based organization that helps build investment-ready local businesses and connect those businesses with investors.
  9. Put together a Nearby gift registry. Nearby allows couples and expecting parents to create an online registry of items and services from local businesses. 
  10. Start a community email listDrew’s List is a hyperlocal email list for South Whidbey Island, Washington with over 4,500 subscribers (about half the island population). Weekly emails highlight downtown events, sales and other activities.
  11. Establish a Main Street, LLC. To combat the downward momentum of blight, Rick Hauser, Mayor of Perry, New York and owner of In. Site: Architecture developed Main Street, LLC, a community-wide for-profit development corporation. Main Street, LLC recognizes the quantitative and qualitative benefits of reversing blight and urges people to “put their money where their house is.”

On May 15, Rick Hauser joined CommunityMatters® and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design™ for a 60-minute webinar. He offered new insights into a longstanding challenge for towns and small cities—getting the ball rolling to overcome vacancy and neglect in key downtown locations.

Watch the webinar recording:

Image credit: WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr Creative Commons,

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.”  

How Volunteer Deb Files Makes A Difference Every Day

image of Deb Files

Last month the Spirit of Amercia Foundation honored Deb Files for her volunteerism in Gardiner, Maine. She was among 99 Kennebec County residents recognized. Files is active in several endeavors that support her hometown and embodies the notion that engaging community members through Community Heart & Soul™ inspires residents to get involved. 

Files is a multi-tasker when it comes to giving her time. She's involved in everything from cash mobs that support downtown businesses to selling books for the local library and raising money for residents displaced by a recent fire. Files counts among her mentors Meaghan Carlson, who was project coordinator for Gardiner Heart & Soul, a two-year project that wrapped up at the end of 2014.  Carlson inspired her to jump feet first into the community, Files says. 

"It's all because I love where I live, I love the people and the feeling that I AM able to make a difference to someone each day," Files says." I was very reluctant to take credit at first, but I now see that by sharing, others can be inspired and the more folks who share what they have to give the greater Gardiner can be!"

Files volunteer work includes:

  • Gardiner Cash Mob: Files founded and organizes monthly events that encourage people to support downtown businesses. "I started out with them as a way to draw attention to local shops during the winter slump, and found so many reasons to continue, including that my teens feel empowered to help and have a real investment in our community," Files said. 
  • Buy Local, Get it in Gardiner: She also uses her social media savvy to maintain a Facebook page for this co-operative advertising program parented by Gardiner Main Street that was initially funded with grant money from Orton after that town's Community Heart & Soul™ project concluded in 2014.
  • Gardiner Library Association: Book It! Pre-Owned Books is a book shop in the back of Lisa's Legit Burritos that Files, together with her son,  keeps stocked and tidy. Sales benefit the public library. 
  • Gardiner Main Street: Files is co-chair of the team that puts on an array of events in town, from Swine & Stein Oktoberfest and Loving Local, a new event that happened in February complete with snow sculptures and Valentines around the city. She's collaborating with others to create Haunted Gardiner that ties the town's history to the present. 
  • Gardiner Fire Fund Disbursement Committee: After 28 low-income disabled residents lost their homes in a fire, Files got involved in fundraising for the displaced. More than $35,000 has been raised and additional events are planned. 
  • Gardiner Farmers' Market: She is manager of this seasonal market. 

Read more about the award in the Kennebec Journal.

Image: Joe Phelan, Kennebec Journal

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.