Sun Journal: Tri-Town Region Facing Economic Crossroads

BARRY MATULAITIS, Staff Editor
Franklin | Monday, June 19, 2017

LIVERMORE FALLS — Jay, Livermore and Livermore Falls officials and residents met at Main-Land Development Consultants Monday to talk about how the Community Heart & Soul program could better their communities economically.

“It’s a community-driven process that makes your community healthy and vibrant economically,” said Alison Hagerstrom, Executive Director of the Greater Franklin Development Council.

Jane Lafleur, a coach with the Community Heart & Soul program, explained that it is part of the Orton Family Foundation. It improves local decision-making, creates a shared sense of belonging, and ultimately strengthens the social, cultural, and economic vibrancy of communities, according to the Orton Family Foundation.

“It’s a community development program,” Lafleur said. “Throughout the program, you collect stories from people about what matters to them.”

Lafleur said that the first step was to find out if towns were interested in doing it, referring to it as the “pre-work” before the beginning of four phases. The first phase involves laying the ground work over two to three months, she noted.

The second phase takes six to eight months, and includes hiring a community coordinator to oversee the process.

“The coordinator’s job is to walk the community through those four phases of the process,” said Lafleur.

The third phase lasts four to six months, and is when decisions are made, while phase four is about two months and is when action is taken on an economic development strategy, said Lafleur.

She said that the cost of the process is $100,000-$125,000, including the community coordinator. It can be paid for by either grant funds or tax dollars, Lafleur said.

In Maine, Damariscotta, Biddeford, Gardiner, Rockland, and Bucksport have undergone the process. Bethel, Newry, Greenwood, and Woodstock are combining their efforts in order to save money and avoid duplication, said Lafleur.

Bucksport Town Manager Susan Lessard, who was once Livermore Falls town manager, explained how Community Heart & Soul has benefited Bucksport. In 2014, Verso Paper closed, and the town lost more than 40 percent of its valuation.

Since then, thanks to Community Heart & Soul, Bucksport has made a comeback, said Lessard.

“I can’t tell you how many positive things have been happening,” she said. “Heart & Soul was absolutely the right decision for our community at that time.”

Lessard said that it was all about neighbors talking to neighbors about mattered through them. She emphasized that it wasn’t a government program, although the Community Heart & Soul coordinator provided a report to the Town Council each month.

Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett said his community had been in much the same situation, with mills closing.

“We’re an aging community,” he said. “Like the state of Maine, we’re having a hard time keeping people here because of lack of opportunities.”

Community Heart & Soul has transformed Gardiner, he said.

“It’s an attempt to engage everyone,” said Harnett. “We found there were far more commonalities than differences in the community.”

He said that if Jay, Livermore and Livermore Falls decided to undertake the program, they needed to find a way to have the younger generation express their views on what they wanted to see.

“We engaged them and had them map the community to see where its assets were,” he said.

They discovered that family friendliness, good schools, a sense of place, trails, arts & culture were some of the common values shared amongst residents.

“What you’re talking about is individual towns,” said Jay resident Mike Luciano. “We’re talking two to three towns here. Have you seen success?”

Lafleur responded that it was possible to have a collaborative approach between towns work, especially if residents saw their community as part of a larger region.

bmatulaitis@sunmediagroup.net

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