Community Champions -- Where Would Our Communities Be Without Them?
Posted: October 25, 2012
"We are the champions, my friends; we’ll keep on fighting until the end..." is a line from a popular song of my youth. I think of it today, as I begin to write my monthly blog, because it contains essential advice for any community that desires to succeed.
A number of years ago I had the great honor to serve as the Main Street Program Manager for the small-town, somewhat rural but growing community in Indiana County called Blairsville. Before I got there as their non-profit, revitalization organization’s manager, they had started a visioning/strategic planning process for what the town could be 5, 10, or 15+ years into the future.
Noting the beautiful river that surrounded the community on three sides, community leaders realized that the water and its surrounding green spaces were some of their home’s greatest assets. But what to do with it? How could the community better connect to these resources for economic and community development, not to mention to better their residents’ quality of life?
A professional planner/grant writer was hired; leaders partnered with the local university and engaged their county planning department and the regional planning organizations; a small, focused planning grant was applied for and received. With this seed money, the leaders created a Master Site Plan for recreation, focused on the Army Corps of Engineers flood control property that the borough had leased for recreation. For years, this floodway land grew over with swamp trees and Knotweed, thus hiding the remnants of the former industrial sites of the economic boom of a century before, when the town was Indiana County's largest. While the occasional hunter, angler, hiker, or motorized quad rider might boldly venture into this jungle, for the most part this land was not desirable, was unsafe, or was inaccessible for most community residents and visitors. Not anymore.
As you can see from the poster illustration on this page, a hiking/biking trail is complete through the property, starting tomorrow. After more than a decade of commitment and stamina by a few of the most determined community leaders any community could want, Blairsville’s residents now have a world-class recreational amenity within walking distance of their homes and businesses, thanks also to other funding sources that the existence of the plans for the trail had enabled. (Perhaps more about these funding tools in a future blog.)
And the trail amenity is being strategically marketed to attract visitors and new residents. New businesses want to occupy the adjacent downtown’s historical properties. Developers envision a new market-rate housing redevelopment, built with design standards reflecting the existing town, adjacent to the trailhead. With new residents, new markets exist for commercial districts’ products and services. Entrepreneurial and economic growth opportunities abound.
But it could never have happened without Blairsville’s champions – community leaders with bold vision, enough courage to withstand naysayers, and enough resilience to stay the course through changes in local, county, state, and federal administrations… not to mention the collapsing global and national economy.
Can you find such leaders in your community? Can you become one?
Penn State Extension has resources to assist you, if you can, and/or if you are willing to make the commitment yourself. See http://extension.psu.edu/ecd/publications, “Learning Today, Leading Tomorrow Series” and “Strategic Planning/Community Processes” for more information about growing your personal leadership skill set, and for processes that can better equip your community for success.
If you need additional help in engaging the rest of your community’s citizenry, see http://www.smartgrowthpa.org/news_detail.asp?ID=865, Developing More Effective Citizen Engagement: A How To Guide for Community Leaders. Some of the research conducted for this publication occurred in Blairsville.
To read more about the decade-long path to a completed Riverfront Trail in Blairsville, see local news articles --