Orange County Hometown Collaboration Initiative (HCI)

The HCI program is designed for communities with less than 25,000 residents and committed to building upon their existing assets.  A community coach guides the community through the process, stepping in to facilitate as needed, but primarily focused on being the liaison between the community, funders and trainers. The community progresses through three phases – foundation, building block, and pathway.

Orange County is a non-core rural county nestled in the rolling hills of south-central Indiana, an hour’s drive from any metropolitan area, with one micropolitan area within a 30-minute drive. The county has a population of 19,600, which has declined slightly since the 2010 census. Approximately 60 percent of the population live in unincorporated areas. Of the four towns in the county, the largest has a population of 3,600. Three of these towns have their own school corporations (elementary and high school).

Racial and ethnic diversity is limited (4 percent are non-white); however, there is a significant level of socioeconomic diversity, with a 15.6 percent poverty rate (2018). The county’s roots are in manufacturing and agriculture, with many hourly wage workers. Many county residents have strong family and friend networks, but have not coalesced as a community around the importance of formal social networks or how are developed and maintained.  There is also tug of war of perspectives of attitudes toward development (prosperity) and success. In the late 2000s, two luxury resorts re-opened (French Lick Resort and West Baden Dome), and those resorts are now the largest employers in the county (more than 1,500 workers). The county attracts over one million visitors a year, mostly to the resorts, but also to Patoka Lake, Paoli Peaks (ski resort), and camping and hiking destinations. Despite these amenities, and draw of individuals to the county, plans are developed by each town independent of the others. The county has three chambers of commerce, a county visitor’s bureau focused on the two tourism communities, and four separate town councils. There is no county-wide comprehensive plan, thus no county-wide land use plan. County-wide leadership is limited to county commissioners and county council members to operate as the executive and legislative governing bodies with very few other organizations working county-wide.

Family and long-term friendship connections run deep throughout the county and region. However, no formal entity actively works to unite the towns and residents for the betterment of the county. Therefore, there is little coordination or collaboration amongst the towns. When Orange County was given the opportunity to participate in Indiana’s Hometown Collaboration Initiative (HCI), a few leaders stepped up to apply for the program and recruited others to join the effort.

The HCI program is designed for communities with less than 25,000 residents, committed to building upon their existing assets, and willing to invest $5,000 for a pathway project. The program is a partnership between Purdue University (Extension and Center for Regional Development), Ball State University, and the State of Indiana’s Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA). Each selected community is paired with a community coach from Purdue Extension and/or Ball State University. Each community coach guides the community through the process, stepping in to facilitate as needed, but primarily focused on being the liaison between the community, funders and trainers. The community progresses through three phases – foundation, building block, and pathway. The foundation phase emphasizes collecting and studying facts about the community, and concludes with selecting a building block. During the building block phase, communities learn about strategies to build their community in one of the following areas — developing a new generation of leaders (leadership), growing small businesses and entrepreneurs (economy), or investing in their place (placemaking). The pathway phase is implementing a project – taking action – using the strategies identified in the building block.

The original Orange County group included 20 members from community volunteers, local government officials, business leaders and various organization representatives including community foundation, education, and civic groups. Purdue Extension had a community development educator in the county, and she served as the community coach. This community coach was instrumental in managing group expectations and logistics such as communications before meetings, coordinating facilitators, sharing group progress with funders, and preparation for community outreach events. The conversations regarding Orange County’s plans, assets, survey and community forum results were robust. Building blocks which garnered the most interest were leadership and economy. It was a struggle for the group to determine which path to take, as both were sorely needed. When it came to choosing a building block, the community coach was critical in helping the group wade through the gathered information, define opportunities and consequences for each building block, and ultimately decide.

The county’s limited capacity to do much in the economic development realm was frequently cited. One person served as the economic development director, the chambers did not function as true chambers, and the local government officials had not defined a role for government in economic development. To further explain, the chambers had limited networking events for businesses, rather focused on events in each community to potentially benefit existing businesses. With these cracks in the economic development ecosystem, technical services and other levels of support were often missing for the small businesses. Theoretically, the businesses would have a strong network with their local chamber of commerce who worked with local government officials to enact business friendly policies. Instead, the local chambers focus on festivals and town councils focus on managing town operations, thus largely leaving businesses to find their own support. Leadership was identified as a critical need to build stronger networks throughout the county; however, concerns were raised about how long it would take to see results from building leadership capacity.

The group ultimately selected the economy building block. The group wanted to create a business-to-business network for small businesses, along with encouraging youth interest in entrepreneurship. As the group ambled along this project pathway, they hit one roadblock after another. The group was smaller at this point, with fewer than 10 people regularly participating. The concept of a business-to-business network wasn’t gaining enough traction to give team members confidence in its success, despite a recognized need for this effort. At this point, the group had been meeting for nearly 18 months, morale was low, and individuals were close to abandoning the effort, despite believing it was important. The final straw was when a few team members changed jobs and others left the community. The community coach had labored along with the group and witnessed the drop in engagement and enthusiasm in planning the execution of the B2B network. At this point, the coach called a meeting and asked how they would like to proceed. The group decided the original pathway project was a non-viable option, and the group was back to brainstorming what could be done. As they were brainstorming, the community coach could see that they were becoming frustrated. Borrowing strategies from Facilitative Leadership, in particular Sam Kaner’s Diamond of Participation that focuses on group decision making, the coach encouraged the group to persevere and recall past ideas that had been generated.

Recognizing that leadership was the second area of interest when choosing the building block focus, the group chose to start a community leadership program. Immediately, the enthusiasm increased and excitement bubbled to the surface as the group brainstormed how to intertwine a leadership program with economic development. Ultimately, the group decided to use Purdue Extension’s curriculum and added modules to incorporate economic development topics. The purpose of adding modules was to address the need for increased economic development by sharing how economic development works, scope of businesses in the county, and other related topics that emphasize the need for everyone to be involved in ensuring the county’s economic vitality. In four months, the program was developed and launched. By 2020, the program had graduated 36 participants. While planning for the leadership program went smoothly, support by the funder of the HCI program was not immediate. Despite the community and the coach clearly communicating the group’s intentions, the funder was not engaged thoroughly enough to appreciate the new direction. The community coach and Purdue Extension had to validate the group’s efforts and serve as the intermediary in addressing the funder’s concerns.

Through HCI, community members learned the value of looking at existing information (secondary data, strategic plans) and generating new information (community forums). The group identified their assets, in a broad sense and more specifically, in economic development. Group members brainstormed additional participants who should be involved in the conversation, used appreciative inquiry processes and distilled it down to a plan of action. Several significant takeaways emerged for both the group and Purdue Extension. Takeaways included: the dearth of understanding of economic development within smaller communities, the quantity of small businesses (and lack thereof), the limited resources to support existing and potential business, and the challenges of weak networks within a community (leadership/business support/etc.).

Considering the following phases, check all that involved Extension:
Initiating/Scoping; Organizing; Assessing; Visioning/Planning; Implementing