HALLOWELL — City residents are considering a community development program based around identifying the city’s values that may go hand-in-hand with their upcoming comprehensive plan.

Camden-based consultant Jane Lafleur gave a presentation about the Community Heart & Soul program to dozens of area residents at the Hubbard Free Library on Tuesday night. After the presentation, residents said the program should be taken into consideration and more volunteers — outside of a core group of active citizens — should take the lead.

The program, created by the Vermont-based Orton Foundation, attempts to reconnect people with what they appreciate most about their town and turn those connections into a framework for future decision-making. Eleven Maine communities have used or are using the program: Bethel, Biddeford, Bucksport, Chelsea, Damariscotta, Dexter, Gardiner, Greenwood, Newry, Rockland, Sidney and Woodstock.

An essential part of the program is gathering data about what Hallowell residents value about the city. Lafleur said this data can be obtained through field interviews, public meetings or prompts left on public bulletin boards. Those interviews and responses are used to create Heart & Soul statements, which encapsulate the spirit of the municipality. Data collection can yield as many as 100 themes.

“You start hearing these common threads after you have 100 interviews with folks,” Lafleur said. “We start to hear common themes and words over and over again.”

Those statements then lead to a planning process and a corresponding action to implement the plans. Lafleur also said there is an opportunity for younger residents or school groups to get involved during the interview and action stages. Further, she said, leaders emerge after the program and Heart & Soul participants often run for office or engage in more volunteer opportunities.

Lafleur, who said she was the only Maine-based Heart & Soul coach, said the program takes about two years and her coaching fee is included if city officials were to decide to begin the program. Budgets for the program vary from town to town; Rockland’s program was finished with no municipal funding because it was volunteer-coordinated, while some towns fund a coordinator position.

During the meeting, an attendee said many people were already involved in a number of city committees and groups, and it would be beneficial to reach others. Rosemary Presnar, a member of the Comprehensive Plan Committee and chairperson of the Conservation Commission, said the program’s process was likely to yield results if a dedicated core group were to step up.

“The same people are here, so we need to reach out … and get people more engaged in volunteering,” she said. “I’m trying to get the young people engaged; not just the high schools, the 30-year-olds.”

Planning Board member Judy Feinstein said the program should be considered by residents. When asked to put their thumb up to indicate in the program was a good fit for Hallowell, most in attendance gave a thumbs-up.

City Manager Nate Rudy speaks speaks Saturday during a city council retreat at Maple Hill Farm Inn and Conference Center in Hallowell. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Hallowell City Manager Nate Rudy served as Gardiner’s economic and community development director when the city implemented the program in 2011. Rudy said he has kept in touch with Lafleur while he waited for the right moment to start the program.

In June, the Kennebec Journal reported that Gardiner was one of the first municipalities involved in the program. The city received a $100,000 grant in 2011 from the Orton Foundation because the foundation helped develop the program that has since rolled out in other places. The Gardiner City Council adopted values from the project in 2013. Gardiner Mayor Pat Hart, who was a city councilor in 2012, said in June that the values still guide decision-making in the city.

Rudy said the Gardiner program informed the city’s comprehensive plan. In Hallowell, a committee, along with the help of a consultant, is doing preliminary work on a new comprehensive plan. Lafleur said the Heart & Soul process often intersects with comprehensive planning, and takes roughly the same amount of time.

State Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, attended Tuesday’s presentation to talk about the program’s effects on Gardiner. Harnett, who was on the Gardiner City Council and later became the city’s mayor during its participation in the Heart & Soul program, said the program changed Gardiner for the better.

“Gardiner was a divided community,” he said, speaking of the city before the program started. “When you do the storytelling, you realize you have far more in common than you disagree on.”

Harnett said the greatest positive change was the increase in volunteers, including a group called “Gardiner’s Gardeners” who plant flowers around the city.

“You find there are so many ways people can contribute to their community, but they don’t know how to do it,” he said. “It made people feel like more of a part of the community.”

Across the river, Chelsea is currently in the midst of its Community Heart & Soul program after starting in June. Chelsea Town Manager Scott Tilton said Tuesday that coordinators for the program are still collecting data. He said about 10 residents attend each meeting.

The Orton Foundation was founded in 1995 by Lyman Orton, the owner of the Vermont Country Store. Lafleur said Orton has spent $19 million on the Community Heart & Soul program.

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