Changing Fairmont From the Ground Up

The people of Fairmont have an idea about how to make their city a better place.

Actually, the people of Fairmont have several ideas. Actually, the people of Fairmont have 1,686 ideas—and they’re still coming.

All those ideas are part of “Project 1590,” a citywide project that has brought together everyone from city officials to local businesses to regular citizens. It started last year as a grassroots effort to enhance the city by inviting public participation through a voting process. Anyone could suggest any idea—from bringing in a Kohl’s to expanding bike trails to creating a youth center.

I talked with Steve Hawkins, one of the board members for the project. He explained that the idea started from a different grassroots effort in Fairmont, called Focus on Fairmont, which had banded together to work on community projects like rental ordinances and city beautification. As the group successfully organized projects, Fairmont residents began asking it to consider other ideas, like a community center.

While Hawkins thought his group was too small to pull off such a big project, he was inspired by a recent initiative in Austin, Minnesota, where a group called Vision 2020 had started canvassing the community to ask what residents wanted to see in their city. After the ideas were collected, group members narrowed them down and voted on the best project to move forward.

“I thought, ‘That’s what we need to do here,’” Hawkins said. “‘Let’s see what Fairmont really wants.’”

So they did, setting up Project 1590 in July 2014 and organizing a group of board members to lead it on its way. While their initiative borrowed a lot from Austin’s, the Fairmont folks gave it their own twist: they’d encourage community involvement every step of the way, from suggesting ideas to whittling them down to the ten finalists, which were unveiled during a “Big Reveal” party in May.

Now that the finalists have been chosen, it’s up to Fairmont residents, businesses and city departments to make them into reality. Each idea has its own steering committee to see the idea become a reality. And as for the other hundreds of ideas, the Project 1590 folks aren’t kicking them to the curb, either. There’s an eleventh committee set up just to support other community groups that might want to take on a favorite idea of theirs that didn’t make the final cut. According to Hawkins, it’s going to be an ongoing effort.

“They’re all great ideas, and they’d all be a huge benefit to our community,” he said. “We don’t want them to stop. If somebody’s passionate about something, we don’t want to hold them back.”

I attended the “Big Reveal” Party and was impressed with just how much community buy-in the project’s steering committee was able to muster up. The place was packed, and the party really was a party: food, music, disco lights. It wasn’t a stodgy meeting to discuss possible solutions to problems; it was a celebration and a community coming-together.

It’s extremely impressive how much the folks behind Project 1590 have been able to do within the last year. If you assume every idea came from a unique individual, that means more than 15 percent of Fairmont’s entire population suggested something. If you assume the votes came from voting-aged residents, the percent jumps up to about 20 percent—a fifth of adult residents. Just think of all the grassroots efforts that start with grand visions for change but quietly fade away without support. That’s definitely not the case here.

In fact, the level of participation is probably the most impressive part of the whole project. Every part of Fairmont participated in some way. The city donated funds, local businesses donated funds, even individual residents donated funds. Dozens of people put in hundreds of volunteer hours. And now, as the selected projects move forward, individuals are pledging their time to help make them a success.

Hawkins said the idea to have the community vote on ideas throughout the whole process is why the initiative was such a success.

“If we let the people vote, then we’re already getting buy-in,” he explained. “If they have a say, it’ll be much easier to convince the community that we do want these things, because they voted for it. They’re deciding, not City Hall, not the school district. It was the citizens.”

I for one think this project is a fantastic idea. Instead of relying on a city to change itself, residents took ownership and worked to change the situation themselves. Anyone can do this. It started among a group of people who wanted to make a change—which means any city can be the site of another “Project 1590.”

For another thing, it’s simple enough to succeed. That’s not to say it didn’t take a lot of work, because it did. But the concept is wonderfully simple: Invite people to share their own ideas and then vote on them. It’s one thing if a city board asks residents whether they want a new park; it’s a different situation entirely when residents have the chance to offer their own suggestions. People are more invested when they’re a bigger part of the process.

Finally, it builds a strong bridge between businesses and the local community. When the project was just starting, local businesses offered their support by hosting meetings and partnering for fundraisers. They’ll become more involved as the projects progress. This sets a precedent—people can trust local businesses to work with them toward common goals. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

I think this is such a great idea, other cities should be jumping on the bandwagon with their own efforts. Just think of what Mankato or New Ulm or St. Peter could come up if they tuned into their residents’ opinions on ways to make their community better. It would work for smaller cities, like Gaylord and Winnebago, too. That’s the beauty of the whole thing: it just requires a community to whole-heartedly come together and commit to making itself a better place.

Let’s get going, southern Minnesota!

Grace Webb

Grace Webb

A former Editor of Connect Business Magazine

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