Moving forward together
By Bridgett Hernandez | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly
A team of citizen leaders in Decatur are making progress with a long-term community project aimed at increasing community involvement and bringing about positive change in their hometown.
The city of Decatur is about six months into the Hometown Collaboration Initiative, a program geared toward communities of 25,000 or fewer people who want to develop a new generation of local leaders; promote the launch, survival and growth of small business and entrepreneurs; and/or enhance the natural and physical assets of their hometowns.
The program is a collaborative effort involving the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA), Ball State University’s Indiana Communities Institute and Purdue University’s Center for Regional Development.
The citizen leaders have dedicated more than a dozen hours to the project, learning more about their community and conducting a survey to collect feedback from people who live or work in Adams County for their input on the community’s quality-of-life features, the local economy and local leadership opportunities. More than 1,100 people responded to the survey, said Melissa Norby, Decatur’s director of Community Development.
The volunteers have also dedicated hours to discussing, and at times debating, which direction the project should go. In the planning stage, the group had to reach a consensus on which of three education tracks: economy, leadership or placemaking.
After some debate between going forward with leadership or placemaking, the group ultimately reached consensus on placemaking.
“Our ultimate choice was placemaking, the building block selection process took two meetings, but there was a lot of great discussion and viewpoints from a wide variety of community members,” Norby said. “I think we are proud of this discussion, that we provided an environment where our team members could advocate for their viewpoints and be respected.”
Even though the team didn’t choose leadership, she said, they will continue to be mindful of that aspect as they move forward with involving more volunteers.
Volunteer Kyle Bischoff said that feedback from the survey and community forum played a major role in the group’s decision.
“I think it came down to the survey results and the community forum,” he said. “I think the majority of people in the community were in favor of place making and were more outspoken about it.”
One of the things that stuck out to him from the survey was the number of people who felt like their voices weren’t being heard by local leaders. It was disheartening to find that out, Bischoff said. While he believes that local leaders do actually listen to community members, “sometimes the perception can be reality,” he said.
“In choosing place making, that would be an example that local leaders could point to and say ‘This is what the community wants. Let’s go for it.’ If we were to go against that, I think it would only reaffirm the belief that local leaders weren’t listening,” he said.
Decatur has entered the second of the initiative’s three phases, the building block phase. During this stage, communities learn about strategies to grow their community. The program describes place making as a precursor to developing, attracting and retaining talent.
In the next sessions, the Decatur team will learn more about the importance of investing in place while gaining historical perspective, examining research and discovering best practices. They will also select a program track to address specific needs or opportunities in the community.
These tracks include planning improvements to public areas, identifying opportunities to implement community design projects, tapping into the locale’s potential or rebuilding the local food system.
“We’re going to find out what place making is to us,” Bischoff said. “Finding out how we interpret place making and what we pursue as a project is what makes me really excited to be involved.”
The final phase of the initiative is the “Pathway Phase” during which the local team will implement a project with lasting local impacts.
Decatur is one of 14 communities participating in the HCI program along with Auburn, Bremen, Corydon, Crawford County, Lebanon, Logansport, Orange County, Perry County, Pulaski County, Rush County, Seymour, Spencer County and Vermillion County.
During the application process, the community committed itself to investing $5,000. The three-phase program culminates in a proposed improvement project. If the project is approved, OCRA matches the funds to implement the project.
Decatur’s HCI survey can be found online at www.indianahci.org/downloads/decatur/decatur-survey-report.pdf.