By Karen Price
Jessica Herzing knew how much there was to love about her home of Cameron County, but back in the fall of 2016 she saw buildings being torn down and a mostly empty main street in Emporium.
It felt demoralizing, she said. A workshop in nearby Ridgeway offering information about a resident-driven program called Community Heart & Soul that could foster community building and celebrate local pride couldn’t have come at a better time.
“(Community Heart & Soul) seemed like a novel opportunity to try and increase morale (in Cameron County),” she said. “We weren’t sure of the outcome at the time, but that was what was so great about Heart & Soul was that it could be whatever the community needed to be. And we just knew the community needed something.”
Today, Herzing and a group of committed volunteers that make up the Cameron County Project are in the fourth and final phase of the PA Heart & Soul humanities-based model for resident-driven, asset-based community development. It’s been a long process, but their efforts are paying off with local government support, a more engaged populace and a data source that could help inform development and decision-making for years to come.
With 14 sites across the commonwealth, PA Heart & Soul facilitates resident-led storygathering that finds common ground, builds bridges through conversations, and gets more people involved in planning for their future. As a result, communities become more connected, creative and strong.
Cameron County received its Heart & Soul Community designation in 2018. Over the next few years they gathered stories from more than 450 residents to learn what they loved about Cameron County, what made it special, what they’d like to see change and how they’d like decisions made. From there, they worked to identify seven values that residents felt were most important: sense of community, nature, local economy, arts and culture, safety, accessibility, and youth well-being.
Those value statements became the bedrock for crafting the Resident Envisioned Community Action Plan, which was adopted by the Cameron County Commissioners at the beginning of April. It is now a part of the Northern Pennsylvania Tri-County Comprehensive Plan of Cameron County, a guide to short- and long-term decision making for county initiatives and investments.
Members of the team presented the action plan not as a wish list, Herzing said, but rather a tool for understanding resident priorities.
“They can use it as a way to build bridges rather than a plan to be implemented and acted upon,” she said. “The beautiful thing about community planning with Heart & Soul is that it can always be a draft, a living document that’s meant to grow and change as the community grows and changes. This isn’t a case of, ‘OK, let’s pick a project and run with it.’ It’s a look at where we are right now, what speaks to you and your mission and how we can take these ideas and integrate them into what you do because this is what the people who live here value.”
James Moate is one of the three commissioners, and said that the Heart & Soul project helped open his eyes to the diversity of ideas and opinions that exist in the county, which is Pennsylvania’s least populous with just over 4,500 residents. Residents working alongside elected officials during the process has also been beneficial, he said.
“I think it’s important in order to maintain a better working relationship with each other,” he said. “It’s far easier to meet the wants, needs and expectations of our residents if we’re able to identify those wants, needs and expectations. Also, it lets constituents know that their elected officials are very much in their corner and ready to go to bat for them.”
Another big piece to come out of the action plan is the development of a free, publicly accessible cloud database of all the information collected throughout the Heart & Soul process. With it, anyone will be able to go online and access information that can help them in business growth and expansion, development and planning, grant-making, securing loans and other ventures.
“To be able to have data that anyone can access, that they don’t need to ask permission to access or go through red tape to get what they might need, really helps the community and really helps the residents’ voices be heard in a very transparent way,” Herzing said. “It was one of our biggest goals.”
Herzing said a number of things are now also happening around the county that are consistent with the value statements and action plans discussed during Heart & Soul. For instance, under the umbrella of the accessibility value, residents wanted improvements to the sidewalks and accessible corners at intersections to make it easier for those with mobility issues to navigate downtown Emporium and elsewhere in the county. The borough has been working for some time now to secure funding and begin a streetscaping project that will focus on accessibility, Herzing said. She also recently learned that the county has hired a marketing firm to create a community brand and website, and that the firm will be looking at the value statements created through PA Heart & Soul in order to better understand and market the community.
Those are just some of the good things happening lately.
“We’re seeing residents create their own narrative of what they want to do and run with it,” she said. “That’s exciting. Community events have seen a change in who’s volunteering and that’s exciting. I think, too, what’s great is that people are learning how to get heard on their own.”
Herzing said that one of the more interesting things to come from the process was learning that people in their community are far more apt to compromise than take hard positions. They were focused on more than just economic development, she said, and placed high value on ideas that built up togetherness and shared spaces and spoke more to coming together as a community. With the Heart and Soul action plan, they now have a reminder of what unites them.
“With it we can say, ‘This is where we agree as residents and people who love this community,’” Herzing said. “When things get hard, you can always go back to this. This is where we start from and build from. That’s the best part of Heart & Soul community planning.”
If you’d like to read the full draft action plan, visit:
The Cameron County Project is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.