Consultant could assist town to determine what folks want

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

What is the heart and soul of Bridgton?

As the town wades through a variety of issues associated with growth — from updating ordinances to developing a deeper land use guideline to addressing infrastructure improvements (Rec Center to public sewage system) — two questions that should be asked are, “What do folks really want?” and “What do folks really think?”

One avenue to initiate a “positive disruptive force” is to follow the Community Heart & Soul program, developed by the Orton Family Foundation.

Jane Lafleur, formerly director of Friends of Midcoast Maine and now at Lift 360 in Portland, recently spoke to Bridgton selectmen about the Heart & Soul approach and whether the town might be interested in either hiring her as a coordinator or coach.

“Lyman Orton cares deeply about small towns,” Lafleur said, explaining why he decided to develop Heart & Soul, which is based on the simple premise “guided by what matters most.”

Orton started the program when his hometown of Weston, Vt. was rocked by an unexpected proposal — to create an African animal amusement park a few miles north of the village at 2,000 feet on the side of a mountain.

A member of the Planning Commission, Orton and others spent many late nights working out details and selling a new town plan to residents at hearings.

Planners never anticipated an amusement park coming to town. Residents were split over the idea.

“Seemingly overnight, the town was divided over the park. That scrap left enemies and hard feelings that took many more years to heal than the scars on the mountain did after the park was eventually approved, built and then went bust,” Orton said. “This experience shaped my thinking. It led me to develop Community Heart & Soul: Guided by What Matters Most.”

In an age where fewer people tend to stay home rather than attend selectmen, planning board or even annual town meetings, Lafleur says Heart & Soul pushes for more community involvement, which then lends to greater public input regarding the shaping of a community.

Do town officials know what the heart and soul of their community is? The way to find out, Lafleur said, is to determine what matters most to residents, especially as town officials embark on dramatic changes from zoning to high-profile projects.

Why did you come to this town?

What might make you leave?

What do you treasure in town?

And, is your neighborhood supporting and connected?

“When a community takes the time to get to know itself, it gains a sense of identity and purpose that informs decisions about its future,” Orton said.

These types of questions “get at those emotional connections that are important to the everyday lives of all residents. This process (of finding out what truly matters) results in community-wide agreement on a document that lays out those things that really matter most to the everyday lives of residents,” Orton said in his Heart & Soul field guide. “By engaging everybody with the inclusive focus on elements all residents have in common (‘we all live here’) rather than focusing on issues that divide residents, a town can come together to discover its common Heart & Soul and use that as a foundation on which to make decisions about the future.”

Bridgton is indeed at a crucial point of its transformation.

“Bridgton is on the cusp of major changes,” Town Manager Bob Peabody said. “Many development projects are moving forward, new businesses are opening, and we have large-scale improvement projects from the town in the process to support the development. We are also in the midst of a large zoning project for the whole town. All of this change at once often understandably sets a tone of fear of these changes conflicting with a positive response of a call to change.”

Peabody feels now may be an excellent time to revisit what townspeople wanted from its Comprehensive Plan, address changes and conflicts, and refocus on common ground.

Peabody has seen positive results achieved by Heart & Soul in other communities that Lafleur has aided (such as Bucksport, Bethel and Damariscotta).

“Their process appears to be working well for them to chart where their town is going in the future,” he said.

So, what is the Heart & Soul approach? The three principles include: involve everyone, focus on what matters, and play the long game (ensure that plans or ideas don’t just sit on a shelf, build ownership and commitment).

Lafleur told selectmen that she either works as a coordinator or coach, depending upon the degree of financial commitment a town is willing to make.

Orton suggests a two-year approach, with the price tag being in the $100,000–$120,000 for a coordinator, to $30,000 for a coach.

Some municipalities use the coach approach with Lafleur working with the town or city’s planner to implement the four-phase plan — lay the groundwork (develop partnerships, seek out volunteers, organize — two to three months), explore the community (six months, storytelling — find out what the community cares about the most and what it will take to make it a better place), make decisions (how to pull all the values together and make them work) and take action.

Selectmen asked the town manager to research the idea further, and bring back a recommendation at the board’s second meeting in October.

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