GARDINER — Hundreds of residents participated in the two-year community planning project that will end early next year, providing feedback about what they value in the city and what they would like to see improved or preserved.
The input gathered during the Heart & Soul project was used to develop a list of community values and helped shape a new comprehensive plan for the city. The next step is for community members and organizations to go forward with the dozens of suggestions to improve the city.
Another major portion of Gardiner’s project, the development of the new comprehensive plan for the city, is expected to be presented to the City Council early next year. State-mandated comprehensive plans provide framework for city officials to use as a guide for making decisions and changes in the coming years, especially when dealing with land use and planning issues.
The process was funded by a $100,000 grant from the Vermont-based Orton Family Foundation, which helps communities plan for the future by providing money and technical and advisory resources. Organizers held several events this year to solicit information and feedback from residents.
“One of the most important parts of this project was getting people in Gardiner to talk about what they value in their hometown and what they value special about Gardiner and to think about ways we can work together to improve this area,” said Project Coordinator Meaghan Carlson.
She said residents should hold city officials accountable for following the values and ideas put forth by the community during the process. City Council officially adopted the values, which include a strong local economy, community involvement and family friendliness, presented by the project as a vision for the city.
At the next event, a wrapup celebration at 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 18, at Gardiner High School, organizers will review what has been gathered and present the projects ideas that emerged during the process, Carlson said.
Two ideas, holding waterfront concerts and expanding a buy local program, have already found supporters that will likely help make them happen next year, she said. Carlson said one strong message organizers heard from community is that the city should better utilize its Waterfront Park, a public park with a boat launch the city has built and expanded over the last decade.
Although the initial grant funding from the Orton Family Foundation will be ending early next year, there will be implementation grants worth up to $25,000 available for completed projects, Nate Rudy, the city’s economic and community development director, said.
He said the project community advisory committee will evaluate the different project proposals with help from the foundation.
The original grant funding allowed the city to develop a community website and provide training for leaders of community and nonprofit organizations, two resources Rudy said he hopes can be utilized in the future.
“The real challenge is going to be the folks of the community using these new skills and maintaining this community communication network,” he said.
An important aspect of building upon what has been learned and done so far with the project will be to continue to encourage that strong network of communication between various nonprofit and community organizations and the city, Rudy said.
“It becomes less of a foundation-driven or city staff-driven project, and it goes into the hands of the Gardiner community,” he said.
John Barstow, spokesman for the foundation, said it’s also important for communities to measure their progress, a task in which the foundation will assist the city.
He said towns and cities that have been successful after the Heart & Soul program maintained strong partnerships between local government and local and regional nonprofits, where parties shared in the accountability and ownership of projects.
“That’s a really important thing, and that’s one thing we look for,” Barstow said.