When people think of their favorite things about Missoula, they may think of the river running through it, Mount Sentinel with its “M”, Saturday markets, writers, and students. But each town has different characteristics making it unique; whether it’s the railroad in Whitefish, the cowboys of Bozeman, or the cherries of Flathead Lake.
Polson is one of only five communities nationwide to receive a grant to help it identify what the people of the area love about their town, and then use that information to guide future planning.
Polson resident Daniel Smith has created a slideshow put to music of people from Polson holding up signs with words like “Home,” “Sacred,” “Lakeside Living,” “Sailing,” “Family Fun,” and “Incredible Beauty” written on them. The words were written in response to the question “What does Polson mean to you?” Smith says they will be setting up a video kiosk in town that will ask questions like this, “maybe asking a question of the week,” Smith said, “an issue that’s coming before the city council, and we can burn a DVD then, and submit it to the city council so they can get a pulse of what the community is thinking.”
Smith and his wife Darlis are co-coordinators of the Heart and Soul community Planning Project in Polson. She says the Project offers an opportunity to hear more voices in community decisions “and to reach more people,” Darlis Smith said, “you don’t see a family show up at a city council meeting. They’re busy, they’ve got kids, they’re doing things. So, to get more people involved, get a broader voice, and put that in front of city council, we think that’s awesome.”
Heart and Soul is funded through a $100,000 grant from the Orton Family Foundation. The Smiths say it gives them new tools and ideas, like the video kiosk, for reaching out to the community.
Associate Director for Programs Marjo Curgus works for Orton out of its Rocky Mountain Office in Denver. Curgus says a big part of Heart and Soul has been finding different techniques and methods to create community dialogue and provide a forum for people to voice their opinion outside of traditional methods like public comment at city council meetings “and so it’s about going out to coffee shops, it’s about going out and having block parties, it’s about allowing people to participate in telling stories about how they came to a community and what they love about it,” Curgus said.
Fran Stoddard with the Foundation says founder Lyman Orton has The Vermont Country Store in Weston Vermont. Stoddard says the small town started seeing an influx of people, and a lot of changes.
“There was a gentrification that concerned him, so, any town can be at risk of changing, and he wanted to put the real power of how that change is developed into the hands of the people that live there. And by really looking at what they loved, that will inform policy decisions, and planning for the future,” Stoddard said.
The Orton Foundation commits up to $100,000 to the community over two years with funding to go towards tools to increase community participation, identify community values, and implement values-based decision making. Funds go toward direct project expenses like staffing, consultants, supplies, events and activities. The Smiths say they hope through this process to open up a dialogue with the community, reaching out across the spectrum of people living in the greater Polson area.
“So it’s not- change isn’t just happening to Polson,” Darlis Smith said, “we are guiding change.” “I hope it just brings the community together more,” Daniel Smith said, “we’ve had a history of kind of being fractionalized, and I think that this will be an opportunity for all of us, at every level, to start talking with each other and figure out where we want to go for the future.”
The Smiths say Heart and Soul plans to have the video kiosk out for Polson’s annual Cherry Festival July 21st and 22nd.
Polson is the smallest community chosen by the Orton Foundation. Other communities all have populations of fewer than 20,000 people, and are located in Vermont, Colorado, and Maine.