Kaid Benfield Archive


Maintaining heart and soul in America's communities

Kaid Benfield

Posted August 20, 2008 at 1:09PM

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The Vermont-based Orton Family Foundation has committed $10 million in cash and staff over the next five years in a major new initiative to stem the tide of “anywhere USA” development and help small- to medium-sized communities strengthen their unique spirit of place as they face growth and change.

Golden, CO (image courtesy of Orton Family Foundation)Biddeford and Damariscotta in Maine, Golden, Colorado, and Victor, Idaho (all under 23,000 in population) are the first communities to be awarded $100,000 each plus Foundation staff support to help them tap into their own citizens’ wisdom about what is best for their towns.

As the Foundation’s materials describing the wonderfully named “Heart & Soul” initiative state:

“While growth sustains towns, it can lead to disastrous results without the awareness of an empowered citizenry with a strong identity. In a Heart & Soul planning approach, as many local people as possible first identify the qualities that make their town special. Then those qualities and places most valued are broadly acknowledged and used as touchstones in revising ordinances, reviewing projects and making decisions.  

“In a series of gatherings, events, meetings, interviews and polling, the four towns will learn to take action to protect and strengthen those assets for the future. In addition to its grants, the Foundation contributes expertise and training on using innovative tools such as CommunityViz™ visioning and analysis software, keypad polling, on-line surveys and other ways to increase citizen participation.”

Biddeford, for example, was once a textile town.  The business has left, but its old mill buildings remain, providing significant redevelopment opportunities for this community just north of Kennebunkport.  Biddeford, ME (image courtesy of Orton Family Foundation)Other distinguishing assets include the University of New England and the Atlantic coastline, as well as a budding arts community.  Biddeford will use Orton’s assistance to help construct a downtown master plan that will seek to knit these elements together while reaching out to historically neglected populations.  Orton believes that Biddeford has the potential to become a model for other mill towns seeking revitalization.

Golden (top photo above), perhaps best known to many as the site of the Coors Brewery, is about an hour west of Denver yet still distinct because of topography.  It is also home to the Colorado School of Mines and in many ways resembles a classic western town with a traditional Main Street.  It is now facing significant growth pressure and needs help guiding infill, redevelopment, and transportation choices while retaining a high standard of community character.

Damariscotta, ME (image courtesy of Orton Family Foundation)Damariscotta, a picturesque town of only 2000 full-time residents, recently had its character challenged by the proposed arrival of a big-box retailer (guess whom).  The community will undertake an inclusive planning process to chart its future with the goal of achieving, among other things, a cohesive approach to approaching development along its main arterial corridor.

The fourth grantee, Victor, Idaho, is a currently tiny (pop. 1500) community not far from the upscale resort town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  As Orton’s description states:

“Just a high mountain pass from Jackson Hole, [Victor] struggles with the influence of its glamorous neighbor to the southeast.  It also struggles with many other familiar western forces: the local economy is driven less by agriculture and more by real estate; many people live in Victor but work someplace else; the busy main street is a state highway; and the pace of economic and population growth threatens to exceed the capacity of local government . . .

Victor, ID (image courtesy of Orton Family Foundation)“Newcomers and long-time residents have joined forces and are eager to make Victor a distinct and independent community. In the past three years they have engaged in a Community Action Plan, started work on a new Comprehensive Plan, received an EPA Sustainability Technical Assistance Grant, and have a successful record of partnership with the non-profit organization Valley Advocates for Responsible Development.

“Victor's ultimate goal is to ‘go beyond land use and design, and toward our social fabric and how [to] create opportunities to grow a more economically, ecologically, and socially diverse community.’”

The Orton Family Foundation was founded in 1995 by Lyman Orton and Noel Fritzinger, both Vermonters. Orton and his three sons are proprietors of The Vermont Country Store, a national mail order/web business with two retail stores in the state. The Foundation was spawned in reaction to a Vermont building boom in the 1980s, fueled in part by a rapid rise in second-homeownership.  

Many communities around the state found themselves unprepared and lacking the information and tools needed to steer the course of change toward a vibrant and sustainable future.  The Foundation seeks to fill that need as a resource for small cities and towns grappling with change and groping for solutions.

What a terrific mission and what a terrific initiative.