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Community Heart & Soul is a four-phase process focused on identifying what residents love most about their community, the future they want for it, and how to achieve it. The process complements municipal planning and ensures long-term community engagement: more residents attend meetings, volunteer to serve on municipal committees and boards, run for elective office, and form nongovernmental task forces and other stand-alone committees.
Comprehensive Plan in Damariscotta, Maine
Damariscotta, Maine, a coastal town of 2,000, provides an excellent example of the longevity of Community Heart & Soul. Damariscotta initiated Community Heart & Soul in 2008, collecting residents’ stories to articulate what matters most to the community through community value statements. These Heart & Soul statements were subsequently used to update the town’s comprehensive plan, amend several planning ordinances, and guide planning decisions.
One of Damariscotta’s six Heart & Soul value statements addresses accessibility: We value an accessible community where we have easy access to goods and services, to local government and information. A group of community members came together around this statement to create the Public Safety and Accessibility Collaborative.
Initially formed to address speeding and the lack of sidewalks in the town center, they studied the problem by conducting pedestrian surveys, walking on the most-often walked roadways looking for hazards, and meeting with town officials to obtain data needed to develop a plan to present to the select board.
Based on the data presented, the select board directed the town manager to submit proposals for sidewalk funding for specific high-traffic areas. Funds were awarded to Damariscotta by the Maine Department of Transportation, and several miles of new sidewalks were installed, extending existing sidewalks throughout the town and connecting the town center to the hospital’s entrance, about a quarter mile walk. Once completed, the hospital, in partnership with the town, replaced a failing causeway at its entrance and added an additional sidewalk, completing the much-needed sidewalk project.
Small Projects that Help in a Big Way
Noting that “success breeds success,” collaborative co-chair Jean Moon pointed to other accomplishments, including partnering with the Coastal Rivers Conservation Trust, a local nature conservancy, to develop handicapped accessible trails and, in collaboration with the town, obtaining funding for a signalized crosswalk across a major thoroughfare between the Great Salt Bay Community School and the Trust. In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the collaborative raised funds to delineate a “measured mile” walking loop through the town with maps of parking areas and signage along the route. According to Moon, this was important “to give residents a safe area to be able to get fresh air and exercise while maintaining social distance from others.” The collaborative also developed walking maps of the town, funded through local donations, that are available through the chamber of commerce and town office. Moon noted that they don’t always look for big projects, but “small projects that will help in a big way.”
Fifteen years have passed since Damariscotta articulated Heart & Soul value statements, but the work of the collaborative is as relevant as ever. Current projects include a bicycle safety initiative. Like the earlier sidewalk project, the collaborative conducted surveys of bicyclists to determine where and how often they ride, including how safe they feel riding on area roadways and on trails. This data will be used to solicit grant funds to pave shoulders on the primary roadways bicyclists use. The collaborative is also obtaining local donations for the purchase and installation of bicycle racks throughout the town in anticipation of increased bicycle traffic—again, “small projects that help in a big way.” A new effort is underway to assess the feasibility of installing handicapped kayak docks to expand access to the Damariscotta River, collaborating with a local bank that is willing to cede its waterfront property for the installation of such a dock when funds are secured.
While the collaborative is an independent body of concerned residents, it is made legitimate through its partnership with the town to advance planning based on the Heart & Soul value statements. Working with and through the town gives the collaborative access to resources, both local and state.
As co-chair Anton Langston puts it, “it opens doors”—and they intend to “keep the spirit and reality of Community Heart & Soul alive and not lost as ‘shelfware’.”
To ensure close collaboration with local government, two collaborative members are on the current Comprehensive Plan Committee, and others are participating in workshops related to the comprehensive plan update.
For Damariscotta, Community Heart & Soul has truly become embedded in the way they conduct business. Over the years, the town manager has changed, as has the town planner and all select board members, but Community Heart & Soul lives on through the residents and groups like the collaborative. As Anton stated, Community Heart & Soul is “one of our foundation points...it’s the spiritual piece.”
The Damariscotta Collaborative is a prime example of the extended value of the Heart & Soul model. There are many other Heart & Soul communities that have experienced similar success. In Canaan, Vermont, the “Canaan Naturally Connected” initiative became a 501(c)3 organization and has received a number of grants to implement their subsequent actions. Residents in Gardiner, Maine, created a “Duct Tape Council” of volunteers committed to implementing and stewarding the actions identified through Community Heart & Soul. In Mercer County, Illinois, 11 municipalities came together to support the local economy through a county-wide planning process. One result was the establishment of “Mercer County, Better Together,” a nonprofit community and economic development organization committed “to improving the strength, sustainability, and vibrancy of Mercer County, its communities, businesses, and organizations through the alignment of resources and priorities.”
Community Heart & Soul is designed to engage an entire municipality in determining what matters most in their community, and to create an action plan with measurable results to guide municipal decision-making. However, it does not end there. For long-term success, the process includes ongoing stewardship by a broad group of leaders and residents who ensure the implementation of action plans and embed the Heart & Soul model of public engagement as a routine part of community decision-making.
Learn more about what Community Heart & Soul can do for your community, including $10,000 seed grants to get you started.
Damariscotta Heart & Soul Value Statements
- We value working locally and growing locally owned businesses.
- We value living locally, being able to afford to live and shop in town.
- We value community involvement where people participate in schools, organizations, churches, and community events and festivals.
- We value having culture and nature in close proximity, where we might see a seal or a moose, but we also have restaurants, art galleries, local theater, and a library, all within walking distance.
- We value an accessible community where we have easy access to goods and services, to local government and information.
- We value a strong sense of community where people trust one another and feel safe.
Robin Mayer is principal at Mayer & Associates, a strategic communications consulting firm, where she provides services in traffic safety, communications, and social media training for state and local governments. Prior to moving to North Carolina in 2022, she served as chair of the board of selectmen in Damariscotta, Maine.
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