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Gaining Community Support


~by Heather Strohm

Regional Extension Educator, Community Development – Purdue University


What does it mean to live and belong to a community? By definition, belonging to a community requires an affinity for that community and having the qualities that afford you membership in that community. Those qualities align with basic community capitals: social, cultural, human, political, financial, natural and built. The strength of the connection between these capitals relates to the resiliency and preparedness of the community’s ability to respond to its needs and demands. Community capitals focus on the assets and strengths of a community or region rather than deficits

A key aspect of a successful Business Retention and Expansion (BR&E) program is when communities participate in a community assessment. During Module Two, a Community Readiness Assessment is conducted to identify further the level of connectedness between each community capital for your community and/or region. The community assessment permits the BR&E Task Force to understand where the strengths and opportunities are for the businesses and the community at large. The assessment informs how communities can galvanize their assets, transform these assets into community capital framework (mentioned above) and then delineate actions that invest in strategies poised to move the needle on important factors such as quality of life, housing, workforce and many other aspects for organizations to be competitive.

However, for the assessment to be successful, consider two scenarios. First, think about a community whose businesses are connected and have constructive conversations with people who live there (consumers, suppliers, employees, etc.). Consider a Hallmark movie during any holiday season. If you have not seen a Hallmark movie, then perhaps you may have heard of the cliché where everyone in the movie experiences jolly, happy times. In the Hallmark BR&E scenario, important characters include elected officials, school officials, non-profit organizations, and many more who ultimately create an intricate web of deeply ingrained relationships that benefit local business while also benefiting the entire community. The cherry on top of the ice cream, picture-perfect scenario.

In contrast, consider a scene taken from a Tombstone movie or any old western movie. Tumbleweeds blow down the street. Boards cover up windows and doors of main street buildings that once held boutiques, gas stations, pizza parlors, and Post Offices. Homes have shingles hanging, flower beds are overgrown, and potholes require NASCAR driving skills to preserve your car if you are visiting the area. Conversations are obsolete between business owners, government officials, civic groups, and residents. Schools are losing enrollment. Capacity funding and investment are slowly drying up for the community and economic development.

In the Hallmark movie scenario, the business, community and public sector are effectively engaged. However, in the Tombstone movie, they are operating independently and not taking the opportunity to leverage the positive synergy that comes from effective engagement.

In terms of BR&E, this effective engagement is activated in two ways. The first is in the formation of the Task Force. An optimal Task Force is diverse, inclusive and engaged. A Task Force that checks these boxes can effectively engage the businesses that they are trying to support and the ecosystem of support that will need to be present to help business address their “red flags” (challenges) and take advantage of their “green flags” (opportunities). In the same way, a community that checks these boxes can best support economic development by retaining and fostering the expansion of existing local businesses.

Grassroots media outlets, social media marketing, and traditional media marketing are valuable forms for support mechanisms for sharing information about the local business retention and expansion program and its Task Force. As a community considers methods to move forward, what is the culture of your community? How does it behave? These questions and more determine how to reach out to members of your community for the assessment.

In southern Indiana, Knox County recently participated in our BR&E program. During the community assessment portion of the program, the Task Force identified a specific strategy they wanted to deploy. While the core group had completed the assessment, they decided to garner additional information to provide a more representative view. Therefore, they listed key community members and business leaders who should also complete the survey. Importantly, they determined who would be responsible for each reach out by the Task Force. The accountability component from the Task Force was critical, as it held one person responsible for each batch of assessments to be gathered. The Knox County Task Force gathered assessments from the following organizations: Parks Department, City of Vincennes, Knox County, hospital, local business leaders, religious sectors, civic groups, under-represented population segments (minimum wage employees), manufacturing sector, and agriculture sector.

Ultimately, Knox County collected more than 55 community assessments and determined that in Knox County, there was a “Vague Awareness” regarding business development around entrepreneurship. This is not a negative outcome. In fact, it is critical information. It provided the motivation to invest more resources to create the requisite awareness needed for opportunities to move forward successfully.

Next month, I will further outline the resources identified through the community assessment and begin to explore Modules 3 – 5; when lessons from company site visits are uncovered, company needs are sized up and strategies are developed that align company needs with the community’s resources.

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