Cornerstones Blog

Welcome, Laconia, to Community Heart & Soul™

This month the city of Laconia, New Hampshire (pop. 17,060) launched a Community Heart & Soul™ project. In the coming 18 months, Laconia plans to engage residents in a community-wide conversation about what matters most—empowering all residents to shape the future of their towns—before the city updates its master plan.

Laconia is the 10th town to deploy our Community Heart & Soul approach, and our first in the Granite State. We are in good company there, with strong support from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, which awarded $20,000 for the project, and NH Listens, which will assist with training and outreach.

Backed by years of work with small towns and more recently by our nine Community Heart & Soul towns where we field tested the approach, we look to Laconia as a harbinger, bringing our proven, resident-driven method to places beyond New England and the Rocky Mountains, where the Foundation has concentrated its efforts. To do this we envision partnerships with like-minded organizations, as are onboard in Laconia, that align with our mission to build stronger communities. I’ll look forward to sharing more on this in coming months.   

So, I extend a warm welcome to Laconia and very much look forward to an experience that I have no doubt will be transformative as Laconians from all over—Lakeport, Weirs Beach, Downtown, young, old and in between—roll up their sleeves and get down to what matters most and what they value most about the unique place they call home. 

– David Leckey, executive director

Orton Family Foundation

Who Says a C-Store and School Zone Can't Mix?


In Cortez, Colorado, plans for a 4,800-square-foot convenience store and gas station across the street from a high school raised concerns among neighbors and school officials. Traffic, noise and crime were among the issues on neighbors' minds.

"We were a little uncomfortable just because it's right across the street. Our primary concern was the increase in traffic,"  Jennifer Carter, director of Southwest Open School said.

The property was appropriately zoned and plans met city requirements. The Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval but asked that the company, Utah-based Maverik, meet with neighbors and the school. 

The city organized a meeting at the high school with Maverik, neighbors and school and city officials. Building and Planning Director Kirsten Sackett presided at the meeting, logging the issues raised on large sheets of paper stuck to the wall. Next the group prioritized concerns and worked on resolutions.

There was back and forth, said Todd Meyers, Maverik permit manager and former city planner who attended the meeting. For example:

  • A two-rail fence was installed instead of a 6-foot fence because of concerns about security;
  • A sidewalk was added so that students could easily and safely walk to the store;
  • Extra picnic tables were added for students;
  • A flashing light and school zone signs were installed by the city, something the school had long advocated.

When it came time for the public hearing and city council vote a few weeks later, neither neighbors nor school officials spoke in opposition. The neighborhood meeting proved to be good business even before the store opened, Meyers said.

 "We have a positive image going in to it as we open our doors. We haven't stepped on anybody's toes as we could have if we hadn't had that process," Meyers said.

Sackett hopes requiring developers to meet with neighbors becomes a standard part of the approval process.

 "I envision that as the way weíll do business from now on, where we change our Land Use Code to require these neighborhood meetings instead of just posting a little notice in the paper that nobody reads," she said. 

Translating Values to Action in Gardiner, Maine

In Gardiner, Maine this summer residents may find themselves taking in free concerts on the waterfront, watching movies in a mini park or enjoying the flowers in public gardens.
These initiatives and seven others underway in this small city on the Kennebec River are a direct result of the Community Heart & Soul planning process that wrapped up earlier this year.
Gardiner wasted no time in moving from their shared community values to action with the awarding by the Foundation of $25,000 in Heart & Soul Implementation Grants that will leverage investment in the community valued at $400,000.
“We’ve been waiting for two years to get to this point. For me this is the reward for putting in the effort,” said Patrick Wright, executive director of Gardiner Main Street, an organization that played a lead role in Gardiner Heart & Soul. 
Gardiner’s Action Plan reaches a broad range of community members, from businesses with a “Buy Local” campaign and business plan competition, to kids with an activity park, and teens with a prom gown service. Some Action Plan initiatives focus on benefits that will be enjoyed immediately like free concerts and movies. Others are longer range, including planning for a food cooperative and funding for the Duct Tape Council to make sure Gardiner stays on track with its Community Action Plan. 
“The wide range of projects is a result of going through Heart & Soul and inviting different community groups into the process, which is easy to say and not easy to do,” said Pat Hart, a city councilor and business owner who chairs the city’s Comprehensive Planning Committee. 
The results definitely bear testament to the hard work of Gardiner’s community members, said David Leckey, Orton's executive director.
“Helping communities find ways to take action around shared community values is why the Orton Family Foundation exists. We are thrilled to see this happening,” Leckey said.
Wright agreed.
“One of the things Heart & Soul has done is make the community believe in itself. The Implementation Grants are key because they have allowed us to identify projects that speak to the core of what moves this community forward. To see $25,000 go this far and wide with this number of projects is remarkable,” Wright said.
Here are the 10 Action Plan initiatives just awarded Heart & Soul Implementation Grants:
  • Cobbossee Corridor Design Charrette: Funding for an architectural design charrette for trails and building reuse along the Cobbossee Stream in conjunction with federal EPA Brownfields environmental assessment grant.  Implementation Grant: $6,000. Project cost: $40,000.
  • Gardiner Main Street (GMS) Growth Initiative: Funding for a business plan competition for start-ups that would not otherwise be eligible for funding as part of the GMS Growth Initiative. Implementation Grant: $5,000. Project cost $190,000.
  • Kennebec Local Food Initiative: For developing a downtown food co-op. Implementation Grant: $5,000. Project cost: $136,000.
  • Duct Tape Council: To ensure implementation of the Community Action Plan, pursue Gardiner’s community values, and ensure continuity of the Heart & Soul planning process. Implementation Grant: $2,000. Project cost: $4,000.
  • Outdoor Concerts: For five free concerts on the waterfront from May to September. Implementation Grant: $2,000. Project cost: $4,000.
  • Buy Local Campaign: To fund logo, signs, and website for campaign. Implementation Grant: $2,000. Project cost: $12,000.
  • Cinderella Project: To provide prom dresses to high school students who could not otherwise afford them. Implementation Grant: $1,000. Project cost: $3,540.
  • Outdoor Movies: For three free outdoor movies during the summer. Implementation Grant: $1,000. Project cost: $2,000.
  • Activity Park: Funding to begin planning for an activity park. Implementation Grant: $500. Project cost: $1,000.
  • Gardiner’s Gardeners: To provide materials to area merchants for downtown and public space beautification. Implementation Grant: $500. Project cost: $3,000.

Five Tips: Using Community Values to Make Tough Decisions

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:


Tired of Being Stuck? New Leaders Can Help

One of the greatest barriers to change in small cities and towns is that we’re stuck.  Town staff don’t always have the time or resources to implement plans or take on new ideas. Community members are invited to offer feedback on plans and policies at public hearings, but they’re rarely invited to less intimidating, formal gatherings to share ideas, much less encouraged to initiate action on those plans and policies.  People are stuck in old roles, old mindsets and old habits. And the press of what needs to get done—often on a shoestring, doesn’t help make room to pick our heads up and think differently.    

Being stuck plays out in many ways —the plan sitting on a shelf collecting dust; the same ten people showing up to every meeting; the vote going against a proposal after many opportunities for input. 

Heart & Soul offers a path for communities to get unstuck, and also unlock the potential of residents to take action and responsibility.  To counter the untouched plan, Heart & Soul ties a community vision to early and achievable actions.  To involve more people, Heart & Soul insists on building trust and relationships first.  And, as local officials and staff meet residents on their own turf, conversations become more genuine and concerns are aired more freely before a decision is made or a bond vote appears on the ballot. 


Visioning Process Sparks Community Pride in One Town’s Youth

Many small towns throughout the United States are engaging young people in planning and community development projects in a variety of creative ways. By recognizing and valuing the tremendous energy and optimism students bring to local development efforts, these communities are building stronger and more lasting bonds between young people and their hometowns, which is particularly important in small places that are seeing their youth migrate away after high school.

Biddeford, Maine, provides a useful case study of how students can be genuinely involved in a wider community visioning process while also gaining a new appreciation for the history and potential of their hometown.


5 Lessons for Engaging the Hard to Reach from Colorado’s North Fork Valley

Despite its small-town feel, affiliations with local industries sharply divide social life in Colorado’s North Fork Valley. Coal miners feel their jobs are under attack by national and local shifts in energy policy. “Hippies” (environmentalists, artists, and newcomers, in the vernacular) and miners sometimes disagree when it comes to local mines. Artists are rarely recognized as contributors to the local economy. People have a hard time just getting along, and they aren’t afraid to say it.

Given the underlying tensions, it’s no surprise that residents of the three valley towns, Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia, rarely see eye-to-eye when it comes to decisions about the future of their region. Times of economic instability make consensus more difficult to achieve, as the need to protect livelihoods eclipses other issues. In fact, many people in the North Fork Valley abstain from formal civic engagement altogether. Perhaps they doubt their voice will be heard. Maybe they’re skeptical of how decisions are made, or how community power is distributed. No matter the reasons, they are hard to reach.

To build community across such divides and engage hard-to-reach folks in community engagement and visioning, the Heart & Soul team initiated three storytelling projects. Keep reading to learn more about the projects, along with five lessons we’ve distilled from their efforts to help you engage the hard to reach in your own city or town.


Top Ten Tips for Inclusive Engagement

So, why is inclusive engagement so important to our Heart & Soul Community process?

Broad—and deep—engagement with community members is a fundament building block of a successful Heart & Soul Community Planning project. We’ve worked hard to advance authentic engagement because it makes all the difference to building stronger communities; it is a means to an end in our work, and it is also an end in itself for the trust it builds, the ideas it sparks, and the new connections it creates.