Highlight: Planning with Heart & Soul

Nov 13, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Community, Highlight

“When a community takes the time to get to know itself, it gains a sense of identity and purpose that informs decisions and planning. Through Heart & Soul Community Planning, the Orton Family Foundation helps towns plan for their most vibrant future.”—Lyman Orton, Founder, Orton Family Foundation

Community Planning with Heart & Soul

A few years ago, Elaine Brett and some friends were sitting around discussing the future of the North Fork Valley: Today, she devotes her time to North Fork Heart & Soul, a project funded by the Orton Family Foundation, whose mission is to help “small cities and towns describe, apply and uphold their heart and soul so that they can adapt to change while maintaining or enhancing the things they value most.”

“The reality,” says Brett, “is that one of the big economic drivers in this valley in a short time probably won’t be here anymore, and that’s the coal industry. It’s not that we don’t like coal mining; it’s that they have a clock ticking. In a presentation the other night each of the coal companies gave their projection of when things will be done: the current mines have eight to ten years of coal left. Do we want to wake up one morning and say gee, one of our major industries is gone, what are we going to do?”

No, say Elaine Brett, Alexis Halbert, and roughly twenty other people involved in the refreshing new approach to community planning called Heart & Soul. “This is a process of going to people and getting them to express and get invested in the things that they value most,” explains Brett. The effort includes a core Project Team, whose five members meet monthly with a Community Advisory Team of 15-18 people including farmers, coal miners, artists, business owners, town government representatives, and just plain folks like the housewife homeschooling her kids.

“One of the goals of this project is to bridge the many diverse communities that live in the valley,” says Project Coordinator Alexis Halbert. “While it may not be racially diverse it’s very culturally diverse. Even though people have a lot of different opinions about the way things are, they often value many of the same things. If we can actually hear back and forth, hear that many of these same things are valued, the idea is that it will create more ability for people to communicate, to cooperate, to collaborate.”

The success of Orton Heart & Soul grants to four small towns in the country two years ago suggests that this approach works. This year the North Fork Valley is one of five communities selected to participate, including  Cortez, Colorado, two towns in New England and one in Montana.

“The approach is different than typical city planner approaches, because it starts at the heart, it starts with what really is important to people in a community, not just where we’re going to put a street,” says Brett. “The Heart & Soul Project is experimenting with a grassroots approach where people in their hometowns come together and express what their values are, what is important to them about where they live.”

Without thoughtful planning, she says, development can get completely away from what’s important to a community. She offers the dire example of some Colorado casino towns, whose residents and decision makers wanted economic development, and “they let somebody come in, they put a casino in, and the next thing they knew their property taxes were so high they couldn’t afford to live in their own home towns. So they didn’t really get what they wished for …” she trails off.

Brett explains how she and others initially took this question about the North Fork’s future to a Chamber symposium in January 2010, and hosted a round table discussion. “We wanted to give people a forum to talk about what they wanted. About 50 people attended the meeting, and they had the choice of different round tables. I think everyone came to our What’s the Future? table.”

The group took what they heard there and went to other town and chamber meetings, asking people to put more details into five areas for economic development that had come out of the initial discussions. Those areas people agreed could be economic drivers were: energy, agriculture, tourism and recreation, creative arts, and health and wellness.

“We said ‘Now what are we going to do?’ Right about that time a grant opportunity came up.” Elaine explains that the fortuitous connection between this group of concerned visionaries and the Orton Family Foundation came about through the Kids’ Pasta Project. KPP is another remarkable community endeavor that has raised more than $43,000 for community organizations and causes since its inception in April, 2009.

“The KPP had won a photo contest,” says Elaine, “and that’s when we heard of this Foundation.” The Heart & Soul hopefuls submitted an application to Orton early in 2011; in the next months, the Valley was selected as a semi-finalist, Foundation members made a site visit, and the group learned last December that the North Fork had been selected to participate.

That coincided closely with the announcement early that month that 33,000 acres within our valley had been nominated for gas leasing. Brett says, “I contacted the Foundation and said ‘I don’t know if this matters or not but everything we put on our application maybe has changed.’ They went ahead and awarded us the grant anyway.”

As it happened, the diverse community of the valley stood united against the threat of imminent industrialization, and succeeded in persuading the BLM to withdraw all leases until further, and thorough, analysis of impacts could be conducted. People across political and economic spectra came together in a big way last winter to agree on some things they value about where they live.

“The land, the water, the landscape, are things that are very dear to the people who have lived here for 80 years or who have come here recently,” says Elaine. “If these are values that people hold dear, then shouldn’t those values be part of a decision making process in going forward?”

Alexis adds, “The idea is to collect these values through stories that people tell about what they love and what really is important to them, for us to hear the values underlying those stories, and to bring those values back to the community and say: Did we get it right? Are we hearing the right things? Is there anything that we’re missing here?”

“Building that social fabric is something that will really help us be able to make decisions together as a community in the future,” says Alexis, “and it also becomes a strength in informal decision making places, non-profits and other community groups, understanding those values that exist here.”

Heart & Soul collects stories through several avenues. Since early summer they’ve been showing up at fairs and festivals including Paonia’s Cherry Days, Pioneer Days in Crawford, the Delta County Fair in Hotchkiss, Harvest Festival, and the Liberty Festival.

Heading into winter, says Halbert, “We’re moving into working with more established groups like Kiwanis and Rotary, going out with what we call Your Slice of the Pie. We’ll come to any community meeting, bring pie, and invite the folks there to have a conversation about the issues that matter to them most, in order to gather these values. We’ll be going out as much as we can for the next three months, eating pie with a bunch of different people, and hoping we don’t gain 50 pounds in the process!”

Heart & Soul has partnered with the Delta County Economic Development Alliance and the towns of Hotchkiss and Paonia, among other local groups. Partnering with KVNF, they are reaching out to the youth element in the community with the Pass the Mic project, in which young kids interview valley residents about issues and industries. A video project with high school students taps the vision of older kids. Alexis says, “I think it’s really important that we get input from the kids, as well as younger adults in their 20s and 30s.” Elaine agrees, adding “These projects give us a sense that these kids are people that we need to truly listen to.”

To find out more about North Fork Heart & Soul and upcoming events, or to get “your piece of the pie,” to offer your observations and values, or find out more about the process for your own community, you can visit their website, www.northforkheartsoul.com, or email nfheartsoul@gmail.com.


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