Strategic visioning in small-town America
We just finished the facilitation of a community effort to inform and promote the town of Schuyler, Nebraska. Over the course of 11 weeks, here’s what we learned.
Like many small towns in the American heartland, Schuyler has seen a lot of challenges over the last decade. Shifting demographics, aging infrastructure, lack of affordable housing, low civic participation, and any number of other issues you’ve probably heard about. And in May of this year, the town newspaper, the Schuyler Sun, closed its office. Instead of a reporter in the town, Schuyler news and happenings were to be covered by the Columbus Telegram in a town 17 miles to the east.
I’ve been kept in the loop on these challenges from the town’s Economic Development Coordinator, Kem Cavanah, who also happens to be my father-in-law. My wife Katie grew up in Schuyler from 5th grade through high school before leaving for college. Today the population there is about 6,200, 65% Hispanic. One of Kem’s goals has been to make sure that as the town changes it’s creating an inclusive and welcoming community for all its residents.
In many discussions over the years about this small, rural community, I’ve learned about what’s working and what’s trying to be improved. It seems like there’s always an interesting project Kem has in the works. Whether creating a grassroots process for proposing actions around housing issues and commercial development or faciliating voter approval of a municipal sales tax option to fund business loan programs and community initiatives. There’s also the Jim Kluck Memorial Railside Green, which turned an abandoned dusty railbed into a beautiful arboretum site for all to enjoy. Being from a Nebraska small town myself, I’ve always been interested in these efforts.
This summer, Kem was hard at work trying to address the lack of a town newspaper after the closing of the Sun. At one fateful Sunday breakfast with the family, he laid out his plan. He’d bring together a group of town leaders to try to solve the problem. They’d participate in a series of workshops to come up with solutions and ultimately a strategic plan to answer this question:
How do we inform the public about our community happenings and promote Schulyer as a great place to live, work, and raise families?
To get to the end goal, he was going to enlist the help of outside expertise to facilitate. Outside expertise who would commit to six sessions over the course of 11 weeks. They would produce a strategic vision and plan document ready by early November. And given the state of things, the facilitators would gladly do the work for free. As Katie and I listened to this plan, we knew where we fit in.
Being a couple of smart, creative professionals, Katie and I decided to wholeheartedly lend our skills to try and find a solution to this very interesting problem. In late August, we drove the 68 miles west to downtown Schuyler for our first session. We arrived at the Homestead Center, the home to Schuyler Community Development, with a couple large easel pads, some sharpies, a nicely printed presentation deck, and a whole bunch of Post-its.
We weren’t going in completely without opinions. Working in marketing, design, advertising, and public relations, we certainly know the media landscape is changing all around us. And researching more how people choose to get their news was really fascinating—mostly a mixture of television, laptop, newspaper/magazine, radio, cellphone, and tablet, with social media becoming an important tool for people across all generations to discover news. And now in small-town America, there we were, trying to figure this out:
Who is going to provide local news content for Schuyler?
We were to consider the possibility of forming a Schuyler Media Network. We were in downtown Schuyler to facilitate. And we had high expectations—demanding that all 14 participants dare to dream. The rules on the road:
- Suspend your judgment
- Don’t worry about execution (initially)
- Don’t be afraid to share your ideas
- Don’t let the past limit future opportunity
- Stay focused on the current session’s goal
- Build on other’s ideas
- Go for quantity of ideas
- Engage in the idea of “what’s possible”
Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats
In our first session, Katie and I got the lay of the land. Through a SWOT analysis we established a solid foundation and got everything out on the table. We were working with some great people who hold a variety of positions with the city, the school system, the community college, the bank, and a cable and Internet provider. Overall, we learned a lot about what makes this small, rural community great and what challenges it faces. Of all the Post-its, the strengths were by far the most numerous, with population diversity seen as a great asset to be embraced.
From SWOT, we then moved into visioning. In session 2, we hoped to establish a clear vision statement as well as the long-term goals for the project. We were in the thick of strategic plan development, where the real work began.
Looking Ahead 5 Years From Now
In one sentence, where do we see this idea going? What is the change we’re hoping will result from our efforts? What does its future look like?
A carefully crafted vision statement would help communicate the Schuyler Media Network’s goals to potential partners and the community in a single sentence. It would give the community of Schuyler a clear idea of the Schuyler Media Network’s path forward. And then, it would be up to all of us to nurture and support the vision and to inspire key influencers and community members to do the same.
In the 2nd session, we created a shared vision, for the most part. We divided the group into two teams. In them, with folks feeling a little more comfortable expressing themselves, we heard great discussion and debate. We ended the session with six potential options for a vision statement and then it was time to get some consensus.
In the 3rd session, we discussed the progress made by the group on the vision statement and settled on two final options for consideration. Connected, empowered, responsive, reliable. All excellent word choices in the mix for what this network could be. And in the end, after a quick Doodle poll between sessions 3 and 4, we arrived at our vision statement:
Schuyler Media Network: Empowering our community with reliable, relevant and accessible information.
There was a lot of conversation on how we were defining a few key terms. In the 4th session, we broke things down a little more and looked at what the words reliable, relevant, and accessible are and are not. Yes to accurate and factual, no to discriminatory and biased. Yes to timely and multi-lingual, no to limited and cost-prohibitive. When completed, we were able to write out that vision statement in ink for everyone to get behind.
Please note: no use of the phrases state-of-the-art, cutting-edge, innovative, or disruptive were allowed in the creation of this vision.
How Do We Make This Happen?
While we were working through the vision, we did touch on what our long-term goals could be in the 2nd session. They were discussed more in the 3rd session as specific categories started to emerge—Network Development, Community Usage, News Programming, Staffing, Perception Outside of Schuyler, and Sustainability. It wasn’t until the 4th session, after the vision was firmly established, that we worked hard to solidify the long-term goals. Ultimately, we settled on:
- Develop a Web-based, Multi-media Platform
- Build a Partnership Network
- Attract Users
- Generate Revenue
The group then discussed the tactics and critical steps needed in the first year in order to achieve the long-term goals in five years. We had really good momentum moving us through our 4th and 5th sessions. Katie and I kept the format loose and felt we had productive discussion all around:
What are the steps we need to take to get these done?
For each goal we detailed out the steps. For the platform; get the domain, an identity, plan for features, and survey the community. Build a network by reaching out to existing Schuyler groups and organizations and determine content contribution possibilities for each. Attract users by creating a launch campaign, partnering with the schools, and leverage existing events in the community. And to generate revenue; explore public funding, look into compatible grants, create advertising opportunities, and ask for donations.
We set out to inform the public and promote the town through the formation of a new entity: the Schuyler Media Network. Katie and I facilitated five sessions and in the 6th we were ready to turn over the strategic vision and plan. Empowering our community with reliable, relevant and accessible information was the vision. From the beginning, the SWOT analysis set us up well and we felt the long- and short-term goals would get the town of Schuyler, Nebraska to that vision in five years.
With the vision and goals set, Kem secured a set of domain names and I worked up some branding for the effort. (Who doesn’t love stickers and buttons?) Our planning document was then handed off to Schuyler Schools to be integrated into their 2016 Strategic Plan. And in the final session, it was announced that Schuyler Community Development was forming a partnership with the Columbus News Team & News Channel Nebraska who would be setting up a full-time reporter in the Homestead Center completely dedicated to covering the news and happenings of the town.
All in all, not bad for a small group of dedicated, community-minded folks who volunteered their time and energy to come up with something that could help bring the town together.
Our last trip to Schuyler for the 2:30–4:00 Thursday session happened in early November. It was bittersweet for sure. We put in a ton of pro-bono time and had to navigate the challenges of facilitating a group of volunteers already over-committed in their day-to-day responsibilities. But we know good things will come from their hard work. And it’s been a great pleasure to work on something like this with my extremely talented wife and her father, who is quite a force for good in the community.
We learned a lot about this particular small town during those 11 weeks. It certainly has a group of committed leaders who are willing to put in the time to make good things happen. There are some really amazing things taking shape at the elementary school in terms of new technology and new potential job tracks to align with the community college. And with this group, diversity is seen as a huge positive and the attitude in general is that the gaps that exist in terms of language, age, income, and opportunity can all be bridged.
In the end, Katie and I both feel extremely lucky to have been able to participate. To be able to see the people of the town come to this with an open mind and really get to work. If this is how we choose to solve our problems moving forward, in both our large and small towns, I think the future we’re trying to envision will certainly end up being bright.