Innovative Approaches to ‘Building Community’

(from Maine Townsman, October 2009)
By Lee Burnett

Downtown Millinocket bustled with crowds for three days in September. The gathering known as the “Trails End Festival” featured a parade of Appalachian Trail “through-hikers” led by Gene Espy, a writer and the second person to ever finish the 2,200 mile hike. There was also live music, poetry, exhibitions, food vendors and street dances.

It was the second year of the festival that was organized as a morale booster for a community demoralized by the unremitting decline of the local paper industry, says Marsha Donahue, a festival organizer.

“Whoever had a bad time at a festival?” observed Donahue, owner of a downtown art gallery. “The festival came along at a time when people really needed something to smile about.”

Putting smiles on people’s faces, believe it or not, is quietly becoming a widespread activity of local governments. It’s not often stated that way. But smiles abound when local governments facilitate festivals, farmers markets, community gardens, bike paths, Main Street organizations, public art, and other quality of life improvements. And all those smiles pay civic dividends. They foster pride, volunteerism and cooperation, which are valuable ingredients in making things happen in an era of tight budgets and limited government.

The Trails End Festival grew out of a sense of inertia over the town’s future, explained Donahue, an artist from the Portland area who moved to town five years ago. While she opened an art gallery, her husband and a partner took over ownership of a downtown restaurant. Quickly immersing herself in community affairs, Donahue served on many committees about the town’s future and became frustrated that endless brainstorming seemed to produce no consensus about how to move forward.

“When I first got here, we had meeting after meeting. We’d break into smaller groups and report back to a larger group and do it again. For the first four years, all it seemed like we did was hold meetings. We couldn’t get up out of the muck,” she said. “The festival was an easy way to lurch people out of the doldrums.” Last year’s inaugural festival drew 2,000 people and organizers hope for more this year. Donahue admits the festival is but a small step toward rebuilding the local economy but it projects a good image of the town and gets people working together so they can tackle larger problems, she said.

Donahue’s frustration with the traditional forms of civic engagement is shared by many. Low participation on boards, committees and town meetings is a chronic problem for several Maine communities and it is usually blamed on citizen apathy. The response to low participation has traditionally focused on ways to make municipal government more accessible and understandable. These efforts have evolved tremendously. Back in 1998, the TOWNSMAN ran an article headlined “Citizen Education: Trying to inform and positively engage people”. The article chronicled the gamut of initiatives, from developing websites and newsletters to live cable broadcast of meetings. All of those communication tools are now routinely used. Still, there’s a perception – reinforced by recurring anti-tax campaigns – that the citizenry is disengaged, suspicious of government or even actively opposed.

But the picture brightens if you look beyond the anti-government rhetoric and pessimism. Citizens are expending a huge effort on all manner of community improvements: roadside cleanup campaigns, neighborhood crime watches, literacy programs, and more. These initiatives are almost entirely grassroots efforts of volunteers, although municipal officials often assist with in-kind labor from town employees and sometimes town funding.

While some initiatives may seem like feel-good projects that are short-lived, others are more ambitious. They all reflect a new approach to civic pride and engagement.

The traditional approach focuses on a problem, a community deficit, something that’s not working, then seeks a solution through expert advice, resources, incentives, information.

A newer approach focuses on what is already working and building from it. The pioneers of this approach are professors John L. McKnight and John P. Kretzmann at Northwestern University. They have dubbed it an “asset-based” approach to community development. It first took root in entrepreneurial non-profit organizations, but has since spread to businesses and government.

A fresh example is the Baldacci administration’s “Mobilize Maine” economic development strategy intended to “foster locally-driven development strategies that are based on the indigenous strengths and authentic assets of the region,” according to a description on the Maine State Planning Office website. Much is already going on at the local level. What follows is a survey of the variety of community building activities.

Kennebunk Community Garden

There is no complete roster of community gardens in Maine, but there are probably dozens – if not more. Until R.J. Mere got involved with spearheading a community garden in Kennebunk, he was often at odds with the powers that be in local government.

“I’ve been involved with town politics for a long time,” explained Mere, a member of the Kennebunk Conservation Commission and Kennebunk Shellfish Committee. “They know me. When I start speaking, their eyes roll. I’m a conservationist, they already know my game plan. They know I’m not liking something, that’s why I’m at the meeting.”

But Mere got an entirely different reception when he proposed creating a community garden. Not only did he get 10 volunteers right off the bat, but $2,080 in town funding as well as in-kind donations of labor to drill a well and extend power to a three-quarter acre site on the grounds of the West Kennebunk Animal Welfare Society shelter.

“This was an easy sell; it appeals to everyone,” he said.

All 43 plots (10’ x 10’) were snapped up. Each gardener is obligated to donate six hours of labor to the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry program. Thirty percent of the produce goes to food pantries in Wells, Kennebunkport, Alfred and Saco.

Mere says the benefits go well beyond the food grown.

“It makes people feel good about the town. It brings out the social aspect. People talk to people they never met before. I don’t see any frowns even with all this bad weather. I think the social aspect of this cannot be overlooked.”

Mere is not sure where it will all lead. He plans additional plots next year and even some education programs to help connect people to local agriculture. “We’re just scratching the surface,” said Mere.

Wayne Farmers’ Market

Of the 29 farmers’ markets in Maine with websites linked to the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets, 15 of them were started in the last three years. Wayne’s Farmers’ Market was started this summer by Emily
Perkins, a 2009 graduate of Maranacook Community High School.

“I started it as a senior project for credit,” Perkins explained. “My mom suggested it. It seemed like something pretty tangible. At the end of year, I would feel like I had done something worthwhile. I, by no means, did it by myself. I got help.”

Maine Initiatives provided $500 in start-up funding for postcards, bumper stickers and canvas bags. Perkins said she was prepared for obstacles at Town Hall, but has been pleasantly surprised that the town readily extended its liability insurance policy to cover the market.

The market attracts six to eight vendors and is held Sunday morning to take advantage of the church-going crowd. “We have a good amount of vendors, a good variety and ratio of vendors to customers. We have musicians that are semi-organized and that works out pretty well.

“I think it’s a good thing for everyone. We put out a survey and have gotten real positive feedback. People say they love coming, ‘it’s a beautiful spot’ and ‘keep up the good work.’”

Perkins said the town’s support sends a message to others thinking of undertaking initiatives.

“I can imagine if I were starting something new in Wayne, I would be inspired to do something similar. People would get a good feeling that it’s not so hard to start something.”

Perkins plans to work in the Dominican Republic in the fall and hopes there is enough momentum that the farmers’ market will continue next year with or without her.

Lisbon Main Street

Seventeen Maine communities have launched volunteer-driven campaigns to revitalize their downtowns according to the model developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Ten communities have committed to full-time efforts: Biddeford, Saco, Bath, Gardiner, Waterville, Skowhegan, Van Buren, Eastport, Rockland and Sanford. A less ambitious program was started this year and attracted seven more communities: Presque Isle, Millinocket, Bucksport, Farmington, Augusta, Lisbon and Norway.

In Lisbon, at first it was a tough sell.

“We started over a year ago with community visioning sessions. It was like pulling teeth. It was really hard to get people involved. People are so busy with their daily lives, kids and school and work,” explained Rosie Bradley, the town’s economic and community development director.

“I had been looking at the Main Street [program] for a while. It’s proven itself. I’ve watched it work in Waterville, Bath and Skowhegan. Their downtowns have been dramatically transformed.”

Bradley wondered if Lisbon had the necessary ingredients. “For it to work, you need very engaged citizens and businesses. They have to be on board to make it work.” This summer, Bradley was pleasantly surprised that nine people attended a Promotions Committee meeting.

“I was so psyched. That’s not a lot but when you’re used to getting three or four [people], that’s great. And now we’re starting to get calls,” she said.

Already, fresh flowers have been planted and flags have been hung in the downtown. A concert program was put together in a week and a half.

“People can actually see things happening,” said Bradley. “They’re going out talking about it. They’re excited about it. It’s not coming from local government although we’re behind the scenes working the program. It’s the people that create the excitement.”

Kennebec Messalonskee Trails

Maine is a hotbed of trail development with perhaps hundreds of trail organizations, committees and clubs, according to Mick Rogers, manager of trail funding for Maine’s Department of Conservation. The City of Waterville had only a few unmarked trails when Kennebec Messalonskee Trails incorporated as a charitable non-profit organization in 2003. Since then, the organization has developed seven miles throughout Waterville and surrounding communities. The organization relies on volunteers and state grant money applied for through the City of Waterville. President Peter Garrett said trails are friendly, sociable places that seem to bring out the best in people.

“My experience is that more people talk to each other on a trail than in a supermarket, parking lot or walking down a sidewalk. It builds community that way. We don’t meet our neighbors, but we see them on a trail, we’re relaxed, they’re walking, we’re walking and we talk.”

Garrett said he is continually impressed by spontaneous volunteerism – whether it’s local college students helping out on National Trails Day, neighbors building a connecting trail, Inland Hospital developing a trail on its own campus, or walkers clearing downed branches.

“Sometimes a tree falls and someone cuts it up without me knowing about it at all,” he said. “We never seem to find trash on the trails. Trail users pick up.”

Waterville Recreation Director Matt Skehan said Garrett’s organization has increased recreational opportunities for residents without much help from the city.

“Before they came along, Waterville just had some bootleg trails. There was no signage, no connectivity,” explained Skehan. “Peter and his group are just amazing – not just what they do in Waterville but in surrounding communities,” said Skehan, who sits on the Kennebec Messalonskee Trails board of directors. Unfortunately, the city can’t help much, said Skehan. “The city just can’t afford to put money into trails. My employees and my time, there’s just not enough hours in the day . . . we’re so busy with programs, clinics, facilities. We just can’t take on any more.”

Lubec Arts Alive

Some communities are sponsoring public art installations to stimulate community involvement. The fanciful “Eco-Motion” bicycle art installations on the downtown streets of Belfast, and the stone sculptures of Schoodic Peninsula are perhaps the best-known examples. Two public arts projects are planned further downeast. The communities of Calais, Dennysville, Lubec, Pembroke and St. Andrews, N.B., are planning a “parish mapping” project. While separately, Lubec has a visiting-artists-in-residence program. Lubec sought funding for it and when funding was denied, they pressed on anyway. Eleven artists have voluntarily agreed to spend a week in town as visiting-artists-in-residence. Planned projects include: a mural project, a series of portraits and others, according to organizer Shanna Wheelock, a potter and elementary school art teacher.

“We’re a very small community on the outskirts. This is a pretty big deal. Lubec has gotten a lot of bad press. We’re kind of forgotten about. This is a chance to see a positive side.”

Wheelock wasn’t sure what the reaction would be.

“The feedback we’re getting is great,” she said. “I’ve been here eight years. Some people they don’t want anything to change. I thought I would see resistance, but everyone is very excited about it.”

Wheelock said the art project operates on many levels. She says it will further unite the area’s arts community as well as “bridge some of the newer parts with the long-time locals.”

“Something needs to happen here. People are out of work, struggling. All the natives that make this area so rich we don’t want them to not be able to stay here. Certainly, art brings hope to a town, and beauty.”

She also hopes it inspires children.

“I want my kids to be proud of their town. Kids are excited about this. I want them to feel proud. A lot think ‘there’s nothing here for me.’ I hope this changes that view.”

Back in Millinocket, local folks have quickly embraced the Trail’s End Festival, although attendance was down this year due to conflicts with four other festivals in northern Maine that same weekend. “There are so many festivals in this state now,” says Donahue. “We have to be more careful about planning.”

Lee Burnett is a freelance writer from Sanford,