CHELSEA — The time is coming for residents to help shape the future of their town.

Volunteers and Chelsea town staff members are undertaking a program called the Community Heart & Soul Program, developed by the Vermont-based Orton Foundation.

The program attempts to reconnect people with what they appreciate most about their town and turn those connections into a framework for future decision-making. The foundation is paying for the services of Camden-based consultant Jane Lafleur to help with the program in Chelsea, with the town paying only for refreshments, office supplies and a contracted coordinator, if necessary.

The Orton Foundation was founded in 1995 by Lyman Orton, the owner of the Vermont Country Store, with a focus on building stronger, healthier and more economically vibrant small municipalities across the country.

Lafleur, who has worked with the Orton Foundation for 11 years, said the program will collect information about what people care about. Volunteers then will pull data from that information and start focusing on common threads and how they can translate to action.

She said there’s no set way for information collection, but some towns hold potluck suppers or have booths at community events to speak to residents.

“(The program is) different in every single community and it really empowers people to take charge of their own future,” Lafleur said. “Leaders love it because they hear from residents in a whole new way.”

She has held two initial meetings to train some community members in the program’s best practices, and she said she was “pleased and happy” with the outcomes so far. Lafleur said residents expressed their wishes for more citizen involvement and a better sense of community in Chelsea.

Town Manager Scott Tilton said the next meeting will take place in “less than a month,” and two residents have expressed interested in being the coordinator. He said a dozen people attended the last meeting and hoped 18 would attend the next one. The process takes about two years.

Just across the Kennebec River, Gardiner was one of the first municipalities involved in the program, according to Lafleur. The city received a $100,000 grant in 2011 from the Orton Foundation because the foundation helped develop the program that has rolled out since in other places.

Gardiner Mayor Patricia Hart discusses her agenda for the city Jan. 19 at the Gardiner Food Co-op. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

The Gardiner City Council adopted values from the project in 2013. Mayor Pat Hart, who was a city councilor in 2012, said the values still guide decision-making in the city. She said the goals include having an open and inclusive government, a strong local economy, having activities and organizations open to all residents and preserving nature.

“These are very durable values,” Hart said. “When I read them to you, (I notice that) these are still what we all … rally around.”

Nate Rudy, Hallowell’s city manager and former economic and community development director for Gardiner, said the Heart & Soul group in Gardiner held seven meetings focused on specific issues. He said the values spun into the town’s comprehensive plan, which was a focus from the beginning of the program.

“It was always a focus to make sure our comprehensive plan was informed by our work to activate and engage in identifying long-standing issues and concerns,” Rudy said. “I think it brought people together for a common purpose and it gave people the sense that they were working as partners with the city.

“It was a reminder that there’s a reason why Gardiner or Hallowell are great places to live and work,” he added, noting that residents work together in both towns to address problems constructively. “It was a constructive atmosphere that made conflict safe.”

Rudy said he is regularly in touch with the Orton Foundation in hope of starting the program in Hallowell at some point. Seven other towns have used the program: Bethel, Biddeford, Bucksport, Damariscotta, Greenwood, Newry, Rockland and Woodstock. Lafleur said Sidney also is implementing the program soon.

While Gardiner’s implementation of the Heart & Soul program had one eye on the city’s comprehensive plan, Tilton said he didn’t see Chelsea residents asking for a comprehensive plan. He said townspeople shot down such a plan at Town Meeting before he began as town manager.

“We don’t know what’s going to come out of (the program),” he said. “It’s community building; it’s to get bigger ideas and more people involved so when we do decide to do regulations, it will be regulations … people said we need.”

Taylor Houdlette, Chelsea’s planning and economic development intern, is taking the lead in planning a summer event for the town, hoping to connect members of the community. She said she took inspiration from events in Richmond and Hallowell.

“It would be a good way to get Community Heart & Soul out there,” she said Thursday.

Preliminary planning for the event involves applying for grants and soliciting donations from local businesses. Ideas included a petting zoo, food carts and a dunk tank. Selectboard members also floated the idea of holding a softball game in which residents play against town officials.

 

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