Better planning targeted

September 2, 2007

By GINNY WRAY - Bulletin Staff Writer

Picture this: As development starts along the North Carolina border, there are plans in place to make sure the growth is orderly, inviting and prosperous. People were the guiding force behind the plans, so the growth reflects their wishes for their community and region.

Now picture this: Growth in the corridor along the state line is haphazard, based on individual needs and interests, not those of the region. The corridor becomes a missed opportunity to create a welcoming gateway and a statement about the community beyond.

Avoiding that second scenario is the goal of Ben Starret, executive director of the Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities. He addressed about 20 people at a Thursday dinner sponsored by The Harvest Foundation and told them how foundations such as Harvest can help a community's governments and residents plan for the future.

Among those attending were representatives of the Danville Regional Foundation, Harvest staff and board members, representatives of Henry County and Martinsville, and state Sen. W. Roscoe Reynolds, D-Ridgeway.

Starret's mission, he said in a separate interview, was to stimulate a discussion of effective planning and whether Harvest should have a role in it. He also presented success stories from other communities.

"Harvest is a tremendous resource," he said. "The question is how that resource and the community can work together to get the best results."

He was here, he said, to "plant a seed" and "hope it resonates with everyone."

The "seed" is the idea that foundations, such as the 107 that are members of the Funders' Network, can help local governments make good decisions, he said.

They can do that through grant-making; initiatives, such as providing staff to work on the issue of affordable housing; providing resources for projects or to cut governments' costs for projects; and funding government planning, especially as it involves residents, he said.

The goal, said Harvest Executive Director Rich Killingsworth, is to make better decisions on planning with regional collaboration and civic participation.

And foundations can do that by providing new tools and technology available for involving the public, Starret said, citing things such as "real time visualization" and "keypad voting." Keypad voting uses a devise similar to a remote control to, for instance, record votes cast by an audience.

Foundations work better on planning than projects, he said. Projects can polarize supporters and opponents, and "when rocks are thrown, it's not a good place to be," he added.

But a foundation can provide a facilitator to help work through an issue but not take sides, he said.

The issues he was talking about were long-range ones, such as transportation, health care and education, "what will happen here in 20 years ... what is the community's vision of where it will grow," he said.

Killingsworth gave the example of development beginning on the North Carolina border. The corridor should be planned to best serve the people and the region, he said.

That regional scope is important, he said, acknowledging that it can be hard to get people together at the table. But communities that are doing well have a high level of collaboration, not competition, with others in their regions, he said.

Starret said that is important on issues such as tourism. For instance, if one community puts a priority on developing tourism around fishing in a local river, its effort would be in vain if a community upstream was dumping waste into that river, he said.

Killingsworth said he sees The Harvest Foundation as a "convener," working with residents, government, agencies and others to discuss what the community wants for itself. Monthly speakers are planned to bring new ideas to the community and stimulate that discussion of the future, he said.

And that fits with Harvest's mission to help improve the area's health, education and welfare - all of which are part of the "livability" of the community, he said.


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