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Closer Look: Community members come together to create better spaces, environment

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a four-part series taking a closer look at the findings of the recent “One Step At a Time” report released by The Greater Clark Foundation and The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. The series will run each weekend. 

It has been nearly three years since the release of The Harwood Institute report, “Waving the Community’s Flag,” an in-depth look at how community members view Winchester and Clark County.

At that time, in 2017, residents talked about their love for Winchester and Clark County, hailing it as a great place to live, filled with a spirit of generosity, small-town atmosphere and rich history. But they also described looming challenges and a great division among its people.

Now, in 2019, The Harwood Institute is back. It recently released “One Step At A Time,” a progress report highlighting the many stories of action now taking root and the spreading of new productive ways of working together in the community.

The Sun will dive deep into these stories for the next few weeks to take a closer look at the Clark Countians behind the progress toward a better community for all.

PART TWO: Creating places for community to happen.

Last week, The Sun covered the community’s efforts in tackling substance abuse. This week, The Sun looks at how some community members are stepping up to improve the environment and space in which we live.

Using nature as inspiration

The Environment Team came out of the public innovators’ lab in hopes of bringing people together to preserve local lands.

The team included Rebecca Campomanes, Peggy Moody, Julie Kerber, Aaron Arnett and his son, Galen, a high school student.

Campomanes said she gravitated toward the environment team because she had always been passionate about helping the environment.

At its inception, the team began to talk amongst themselves, wondering if the word “environment” attracted others to join them. They wanted something more inspiring — something people can relate to.

The team brainstormed a few name possibilities, eventually voting via text for Winchester Inspired by Nature, or WIN, according to “One Step At A Time.”

“When it comes down to it, the ‘inspired by nature’ part was just a way to acknowledge Winchester as a unique landscape,” Campomanes said.

During their first Farmers’ Market visit, which happened to be “Kids Day,” the team offered crafts for children and questions for adults.

Questions included: What kind of community do you want to live in? Why is that important? How is that different from how you see things now? What are some of the things that need to happen to create that kind of change?

People answered, talking not so much about the environment, but more about their larger surroundings. People wanted the best of small-town life. Residents wanted to feel safe and to know and care about each other.

Acting on this knowledge, WIN members came up with the idea of weekly neighborhood walks to promote exercise and conversation, according to the report.

“We started out with Wednesday walks,” Campomanes said.

Mindful of Winchester’s racial divide, the team deliberately chose to walk from Heritage Park, used mostly by African-Americans, to College Park, which is in a historically white neighborhood, according to the report.

The effort sought to bring people together and address key underlying community concerns at the same time.

According to the report, on one of their first walks, a black man who was watching the group of whites near his home started to yell at them, expressing suspicion about why they are there.

An African-American woman nearby heard the shouting and invited the WIN members into her home. There, they met her mother, a former hairdresser and a prominent member of the community. 

The older woman gave them a tour of her home and spent a long time talking about her life in Winchester. 

“It was a really different experience,” Campomanes said. “Most of us were out of our comfort zone. It was eye-opening, eye-opening about how separated our communities really are. I think it was starting to build that bridge.”

Eventually WIN suspended the walks for lack of attendance, but the team kept returning to the Farmers’ Market.

The group also kept meeting faithfully, twice a month, at 7 a.m. to look for their next move. 

The breakthrough came when the team decided to hold three community conversations to learn more about what people in the community are thinking. 

“We actually used the Harwood technique, asking people what they want in a structured manner,” Campomanes said.

What they learned was initially frustrating, according to the report. No one brought up the word “environment,” or even talked about preserving local lands. 

“It became apparent the environment and nature wasn’t at the forefront of their minds,” Campomanes said. 

Instead, the community conversation participants echoed what the team heard at the Farmers’ Market and what was in the initial “Waving the Community’s Flag:” Residents want a safe, drug-free community with a small-town atmosphere. 

“What we did hear was that they wanted to revitalize downtown and connect to each other and know what was going on,” Campomanes said.

WIN later learned through conversations with other groups, people feared using city parks because of drug needles strewn on the ground. 

The team started to meet with a host of potential community partners to organize a spring picnic at College Park that would, as Campomanes put it, “show neighbors they had agency and ownership of what went on in the park.” 

During meetings with potential partners when gearing up for the picnic, the WIN team also learned something from the police chief they didn’t know before. His department produced data on crime and other activities in local parks, suggesting conditions are better than people’s perceptions. 

Rather than announce these findings, and ask people to accept them, WIN invited neighbors to walk through the park before the picnic. They found no needles. 

WIN also wanted neighbors to have conversations with officials on the subject at the College Park picnic. So, they invited police officers and firefighters to the picnic to mingle with residents, according to the report. 

Campomanes also brought in hundreds of pounds of rocks for kids and families to paint during the picnic. WIN also created a welcoming Neighbors Connect banner and put out large post-it sheets for people to publicly write down their aspirations for the community. 

There were also materials from various organizations for distribution, which were purchased with a What’s Your Ambition?! grant from The Greater Clark Foundation. 

One of the documents available at the picnic was the chief’s report on local parks, which Kerber talked about during an open mic period. 

The event was a huge success, according to the report. Three hundred people turned out, stood in long food lines, chatted with police officers, let their kids inspect the large fire truck parked in an adjacent lot, and sat on the ground enjoying the music. 

Campomanes, who lives in the neighborhood, said she sees a lot more people since then use College Park daily.

“I don’t see people avoiding the park as much as they used to,” she said. 

WIN also played a part in the passing of the nuisance ordinance. Most recently, Campomanes said WIN is a part of  the Clark County environmental educators network, that came out of Erin Sliney’s research. 

“We’re forming what we hope will be a model for the rest of Kentucky to get environmental educators together,” Campomanes said. “It is continuing what WIN is doing but to a higher level, hopefully with some funding eventually.”

WIN also plans to co-host a walk around the African-American Heritage Trail during the 2020 Wellness Challenge.

Reviving downtown

Downtown Winchester is the heart and soul of the community, but according to “Waving the Community’s Flag”, it is also a living symbol of the town’s problems. 

Crumbling sidewalks and buildings, drug-dealing and empty storefronts were painful reminders of the town’s more vibrant past, according to the report. 

This prompted more than 20 public innovator lab attendees to join the Downtown Team, making it the largest team to form at the lab.

Rachel Alexander, executive director of Main Street Winchester, said she joined the team for a number of reasons.

“Beyond it being my job, it’s also my passion,” Alexander said. “I love downtown. I love the creativity that a community can bring to make downtown feel like it really represents the community. It’s like a central neighborhood for the community. So I was excited to work with others in the group and find out what their aspirations were for downtown.”

However, after a few months, it became clear there were different ideas among team members and no clear sense of direction.

“We had a lot of great conversations, but what we realized over time, there were lots of groups working really hard about what they wanted to see and it wasn’t time to coalesce,” Alexander said. “It was really fun to have those conversations, and it was fun to see what those people were doing and plan to do downtown and in the community in general.” 

Before the lab, in 2015, GCF awarded Main Street Winchester a What’s Your Ambition?! grant for the “Build a Better Block” project. 

The grant supported the creation of “pop-up” businesses for a single weekend. GCF also created an event to announce the project and recruit volunteers. 

“When we had the opportunity to do the Better Block project, in partnership with The Greater Clark Foundation, we were also working on the traditional Downtown Master Plan at the same time,” Alexander said. “We were able to launch both efforts at the same time, and people were very excited about what downtown could be.” 

Alexander said residents not usually involved turned out, and people were put to work sawing, hammering, decorating and staffing temporary retail stores and restaurants in empty storefronts on North Main. 

“We made it easy for anyone to be involved,” Alexander said. “…We’ve seen lots and lots of changes downtown that we can trace back to that fall.”

Alexander said not long after the Build a Better Block project, she attended her first public innovators’ lab. She’s part of a small group of local individuals GCF sent to a lab in Alexandria, Virginia, to explore the idea of a partnership with The Harwood Institute. 

“I did the lab twice,” Alexander said. “I was part of the pilot group that The Greater Clark Foundation sent to Washington D.C. There were four or five of us, and we came back and talked to the foundation about our experience. Then they decided to bring [The Harwood Institute] to Winchester.”

As part of the Downtown Master Plan process, Alexander, keeping in mind the advice to “turn outward,” sent out a Facebook invitation to the community that asked the Harwood questions: “What kind of community do you want to live in?” and “What do you want for downtown Winchester’s future?” 

The community’s shared aspirations for the community and downtown were the foundation for a set of new strategies and actions. 

Part of the end product was a list of 10 priority recommendations to address issues raised in “Waving the Community’s Flag” — everything from wanting improved code enforcement and public safety efforts to sidewalk repairs on the high side of Main Street to upgraded housing downtown.

One of the many steps Main Street Winchester took was to organize a loft tour, a Saturday event that was a sales pitch for further investment in downtown as well as an effort to bring people together socially, help them see changes downtown and feel more a part of the potential of downtown. 

Despite these different activities, there was a persistent, negative narrative that nothing will ever change, according to the report. 

“It was something I already knew,” Alexander said.

When Alexander first came to Winchester in 2014, when she was employed by Preservation Kentucky, for an event, she was blown away by the friendliness and the beauty Winchester exuded. 

But then she started seeing things on Facebook about the poor state of downtown, how it was “dead,” unsafe and crime-ridden. 

“The North and South Main divide also completely took me by surprise as an outsider,” Alexander said.

Alexander said she knew about that negative narrative when joining Main Street Winchester later in 2014, but she didn’t know how difficult it would be to change that narrative. 

Alexander quickly learned you have to “show’ people, and not just tell them, and you can’t talk about the good stuff without acknowledging the issues yet to be dealt with. 

Though Alexander felt she had enough insights from the Master Plan process and Waving the Community’s Flag to inform her next steps, she kept talking with residents through the use of Harwood’s “ASK Questions” (four simple questions that come from the longer community conversations) and her regular, ongoing interactions with people. 

From those conversations, MSW went to work. At this point, some of the projects in Main Street Winchester’s Master Plan were still three to five years off, but improvements in code enforcement and new outdoor dining regulations were counted among early wins. 

And the wins kept coming, according to the report.

Alexander said one of the latest wins was the creation of a downtown grant program that launched a month or so ago. 

The Downtown Development Investment Fund will provide grants to downtown business and building owners to help them improve a building’s facade, its retail space, residential space and more. 

“We’re hoping to award the first of those shortly,” Alexander said. 

Thirty rehab projects downtown were started or completed in the past four years, from roof replacements to total overhauls. 

Investment downtown now totals $7 million annually, compared with $600,000 in 2015. 

“That more than anything shows how that needle is moving and how much stronger downtown is,” Alexander said.

Alexander said investments have already surpassed $7 million this year.

There is new development up and down Main Street. In 2018, in recognition of their accomplishments, Main Street Kentucky gave Alexander and her local group three of the eight top Main Street Kentucky awards. 

Moving forward, Alexander said MSW continues to work on redevelopment plans of the Sphar  building site. 

“Our goals are going to be similar to what we’ve been doing: Be consistent. Keep pushing forward and adapt as the situation changes,” Alexander said. “We will shape our projects and goals to be in line with what the community wants from downtown and what the economy is dictating.”

MSW is also working on hiring an engineering firm to help Winchester create a park on the highside to create more green space downtown; there’s also efforts underway to make the highside more accessible. 

“We’re really excited about addressing that,” Alexander said.

There are also some marketing campaigns in the works, she said. 

All of MSW’s efforts have contributed to the shift toward a positive perception of downtown. Alexander said on Facebook alone, the percentage of negative comments have shrunk while the positive comments come in more and more everyday. 

However, there’s still a long way to go, she said. 

“No matter what, there’s always things we can do better,” Alexander said. “And as our community changes, we will have to adapt.” 

Coming out of the woodwork

Campomanes said she’s seen a lot of change over the past few years.

She said she feels like the leaders are starting to see the community how community members see it. The community has finally joined in the conversation of what Clark County should be.

“We have to include everyone,” Campomanes said. “The Harwood practice and turning outward has helped shift that mindset of bringing people to the table.”

Alexander agreed. Since the moment she stepped in Clark County, she’s been impressed by the people that live here, and their desire to improve the community.

“I’m so glad to be a part of that,” Alexander said.

Overall, she said it’s been especially incredible to see the change the public innovators lab sparked.

“It’s been really incredible to see the way community members have come out of the woodwork, to say ‘I love where I live and this is what I want to see and I’m willing to put in the blood, sweat and tears to make this the community I envision,’” Alexander said.

About Lashana Harney

Lashana Harney is a reporter for The Winchester Sun. Her beats include schools and education, business and commerce, Winchester Municipal Utilities and other news. To contact her, email lashana.harney@winchestersun.com or call 859-759-0015.

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