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Building on Small Towns’ Heart & Soul

February 8, 2013

After the residents of Damariscotta, Maine, blocked development of an 187,000-square-foot Walmart in 2006, the town with roughly 2,000 year-round residents was left battered and divided. It also faced a “What now?” dilemma.

“Our local government is run by selectmen in a very New England form of government,” explains Mary Kate Reny, whose husband’s family has owned a department store, R.H. Reny Inc., in Damariscotta for more than 60 years. “If they get paid, it’s a pittance. These guys had the where­withal to say, ‘We don’t have the ability to deal with these huge issues.’ They wanted to do better next time.”

Thus the Damariscotta Planning Advisory Committee, known as DPAC, was born. Residents and business owners from Damariscotta and neighboring communities united to wrestle with the question of how small communities such as theirs can encourage development while retaining the qualities their residents cherish.

With guidance from the Orton Family Foundation’s Heart & Soul Community Planning Program, Damariscotta asked its residents to tell tales about their hometown. “The planning uses storytelling as a different kind of entry point for people to be involved in a process they’ve never been involved in before,” says Betsy Rosenbluth, director of northeast projects at the Middlebury, Vt., foundation. “Not a lot of people get excited about a planning department hearing. But they can get excited about storytelling to share their reflections of why they live where they do, what about their community is important to them, and their aspirations for it.”

What’s emerging in Damariscotta is a community consensus on the future of development in the picturesque town just 12 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Residents in four other small communities — Golden, Colo.; Victor, Idaho; Biddeford, Maine; and Starksboro, Vt. — have been doing the same soul-searching, though Starksboro residents are storytelling through art, not words.

“The problem for small towns is becoming Anywhere USA,” says Rosenbluth. “How does a community change while still holding onto its heart and soul, or its unique community identity? Rather than be run over by or reactive to development, communities are trying to come together to decide what they want to be. Instead of saying no to a particular development, they’re determining what they’re saying yes to.”

If not Walmart, then what?

Though it might look different from small towns in Montana or New Mexico, Damariscotta’s development experience is typical of speck-on-a-map towns throughout the country.

“Damariscotta is a service center for this area and the peninsula,” says Reny. “But land use has been developed by centralized villages, sort of like pearls on a string along the coast.” So when Walmart announced plans to build a supercenter on the outskirts of town, most casual observers would have bet on the megaretailer. That would have been an unwise bet.

“Two women created a local group and rallied to get a 35,000-square-foot retail size cap in Damariscotta and three nearby villages before Walmart could deliver its proposal,” says Reny. “We were successful because while our residents love their local commerce, they could also shop at Walmart somewhere else — and the Walmart would have put a lot of people out of business.”

The fight left divisions within Damariscotta, especially among those who want to influence local development and those who want no development at all, says Robin Mayer, a DPAC member. Mayer and her husband retired to Damariscotta from Maryland’s eastern shore just after the Walmart war ended but tracked the fight from afar through the Damariscotta newspaper. “There will always be a segment of the population anywhere that’s averse to change,” says Mayer. “Now we’re trying to convince those last holdouts that because change will happen, we want it to be by choice, not by chance.”

DPAC turned to Heart & Soul for guidance. “We knew there was a large development called Piper’s Point coming to Damariscotta,” says Reny. “That, combined with the lack of expertise in how to handle this in a collaborative way, is why DPAC applied for the Heart & Soul grant.”

Identifying values through storytelling

Heart & Soul is in its infancy, with the first five towns still working through place-based community planning, which seeks to identify what makes a place unique and shape development in a way that honors those features.

Towns are chosen through a competitive application process. “We invite communities that have a willingness to experiment with new tools and methods; to really involve voices, businesses and residents who haven’t been involved in traditional planning processes and that are committed to not only partner with us, but with their community members,” says Rosenbluth.

Heart & Soul also seeks communities on the cusp of showing progress by taking action to enhance the heart and soul of their community, says Rosenbluth. That action could be the creation of new codes or zoning plans or a downtown master or transportation plan — even a trail system or sidewalks. The foundation provides technical assistance and funding, but it requires towns to match. “Sometimes the match is through cash from the town or raised from other sources,” says Rosenbluth. “But much of it is through in-kind staff time.”

The key to Heart & Soul is storytelling. “There are two major threads for gathering and sharing stories,” says Rosenbluth. “One thread is one-to-one interviews. In Damariscotta, we trained residents to interview their neighbors and capture them on video. We then had a potluck supper for residents to see the stories and use them as feeds for other stories. The second thread that’s been very successful is story circles. Residents come together in small groups, share stories and talk about the themes from those stories. It’s a starting point for dialogue about what’s important and what people want to hold onto.”

Josephine Power, who with her husband has acted as a caretaker at a farm in Biddeford since 2008, never thought she’d get involved in community planning. Yet she volunteered to help videotape residents’ stories and has been energized by the experience.

“I moved a lot as an adult and never really felt rooted,” says Power. “But I really enjoyed gathering the stories, and I really feel rooted to the Biddeford community. I’ve learned how master plans have traditionally been done and how they can be done. I’ve also learned that it’s a lot of work to get people in a community the size of Biddeford, with 22,000 people, involved. Biddeford is divided into different areas — the downtown, the oceanfront area with both wealthy families and fishermen, the University of New England area, the area with strip malls, and a rural farming community. We’ve begun the process of connecting those groups. There’s a long way to go, but the program has at least begun.”

It was story circles that helped bridge gaps among the roughly 1,100 residents of Victor. “Victor is a small town on the other side of the Teton Pass from Jackson, Wyo.,” explains Rosenbluth. “Jackson has had tremen­dous development pressure, and Victor was starting to feel it. But residents hadn’t really come together, espe­cially some of the old timers — traditionally Mormon families who’ve lived on ranches for a long time — and the newcomers. The divide was pretty intense.”

Through storytelling, residents learned that old-timers and newcomers shared values and appreciated the same things about Victor. “Storytelling was a way to identify the town’s values and issues, but one of the strongest benefits is building relationships and bridging divides so a community is more ready to talk about an agreed-on vision for the future,” says Rosenbluth. “Not everybody will agree, but bringing back a civil dialogue and agreeing on actions you can take is very important.”

In fact, after many residents’ stories fondly recalled a shuttered downtown theater, Pierre’s Playhouse, the owners reopened it. “Now they’re having plays and community events,” says Rosenbluth. “It was an exciting step for Victor’s main street.”

Developers’ role in Heart & Soul

Where do developers fit into the Heart & Soul program? Admittedly, gathering stories and identifying values takes time, which draws out development timelines.

“It’s a long process to try to build consensus in the town,” says Rob Nelson, a former DPAC member and president of Ecological Development LLC in Newcastle, which neighbors Damariscotta. “The whole idea of the Heart & Soul process is to build consensus about what the town wants to see happen in the future. If that’s successful, it makes development easier. If you’re proposing something that doesn’t meet that vision at all, you’re in trouble. But if the town’s vision is articulated, at least in principle, it can make things a lot easier. You can say, ‘This is what we’ve heard townspeople say. Here’s what I’m proposing, and it fits that vision in these ways.’”

In fact, Nelson is now adopting the Damariscotta model in Newcastle. “As we try to engage the public and build consensus,” says the chair of the land-use ordinance review committee in Newcastle, “the fact that this process took place in Damariscotta with participation of some people in Newcastle will give us a leg up in developing consensus on the issues we face.”

Though Heart & Soul communities haven’t yet finished their planning, residents are confident they’re on their way. “We’ve done the community conversations, the storytelling and exercises in what we love — which in­cludes Reny’s, downtown and the gorgeous river,” says Reny. “Now we’re deciding what that means when we’re talking about new development. Place-based planning is messy and hard to quantify. We’re still not sure how the implementation part is going to play out. But I’m pleased about where this is going. Orton also doesn’t know where the implementation will end up, but it’s letting places be who they are.”