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Leadership and Consistency – Impactful Innovation Through the Lens of One Community

Written by: Dwayne Groll, P.E., LEED-AP, President 

What type of community would turn an area of a previous wastewater treatment facility into a constructed wetland for conservation, then develop and build connectivity ahead of a future Rails to Trails project adjacent to the community, and experiment with a new solar array providing residences a new source of power, and then construct a demonstration project for rural Green and Complete Streets?

One may think about a large suburban or urban city or perhaps a county that’s very progressive, and has funds that are fueled by growth. The answer, in this case, is a small rural community, with little funds, where everyone still knows your name.

As we drive through the rural hills of Ohio, we come upon town after town that maintains those familial characteristics, but in many, one can often sense the struggles associated with being remote, lacking the big town resources in funds and people to move the needle forward.

So what makes this Village unique, and what can we learn from their journey to be replicated in other communities, big or small, rural or urban?

I first came to the Village nearly two decades ago, instructed by my boss at the time to help the Village in their infrastructure needs, and that, ‘they were a little behind in those needs.’ Arriving as a young engineer, with ideas and energy, I still remember the first meeting when one of the community leaders jokingly said, “We had two nickels to rub together, but somewhere we lost one and the other is a little tarnished.” I didn’t realize until the end of the meeting that he wasn’t joking.

Wow! Not knowing quite what I had stepped in to, somehow the task at hand seemed impossible. So I did what any self-respecting engineer would do – grabbed a napkin off the table and said, “Tell me every possible project and dream that you want done in the Village, and don’t think about the cost or time frame – all simple or wildly crazy ideas accepted.”  Then we broke it down into what types of improvement each item was and suddenly we had a capital plan, and every year since, it’s the same process – what’s important, what priorities have changed and what’s in the queue for the immediate future that needs to get planned, funded, designed, built and maintained?

But in reality, the capital plan, and the associated planning, design and construction that has replaced almost every piece of infrastructure over the last 20 years hasn’t been solely about the capital plan. The success rides foundationally on the community’s leadership intertwined with several other elements.

Shortly after getting engaged with the Village, a new mayor arrived on the scene, and with the exception of a short stint in 2014-2015, is still mayor today.  Observing his actions, watching him get the right people on the bus, developing community wide engagement and observing the progress over time has been a reflection in learning, and I believe these lessons learned can and are often applied to many healthy communities and businesses, regardless of scale.  One can read about leadership in countless books detailing why and how, but observing it in real life, brings it to the forefront of reality.

Reflecting today on the journey, three key elements of the community engine bubbled to the surface:

Leadership – An absolute. When a complaint would filter in, it wasn’t always, “The Village will look into it” –  it often was, “I could use your help in resolving the issue” – or calling Environmental Design Group, a neighboring community, the county, the state, a regulator, a nonprofit – and the list goes on, to help solve the issue. Being vulnerable and humble enough to ask for help – well, it’s amazing who is willing to help.

Consistency – Always. Only so much can get done every year, but if every year something gets done, then the community gets rebuilt and keeps moving forward while maintaining the characteristics and the people that are the community ecosystem.  Looking back, most infrastructure has been replaced, utilities and roads are consistently maintained and repaired- however a year off, that would have been devastating. – to the long range success.

Innovate – Forever.  What is the Village doing today?  Building a Green and Complete Street project. Why?  To illustrate that Green Infrastructure is viable for a rural community, not just a big urban city.  To help the environment.  Are they jumping on the Green Infrastructure bandwagon?  No, it’s just engrained in their thought process to keep improving the community through innovation. When they were building the new wastewater facility, the questions arose – what to do with the old lagoon that held and treated the wastewater before and didn’t function properly?  Help the environment, make the storm water discharge cleaner, build a constructed wetland and turn the old lagoon into something special.  One of the most memorable moments for me was at the new plant, when the operator took me over to the creek receiving the new effluent and pointed out something he had never seen before in his lifetime in the creek – fish.  The impact of that moment made it all worthwhile!

What’s the next innovation??  A solar array, financed and built by a power company that will supply power to the Village, and built on Village property.

Leadership, Consistency, Innovation – a real life case study in rural America, better than a Harvard Business Review. Stop by the Village, coordinates, 40.9023° N, 81.7340° to see how one rural community keeps moving forward and visit the Green and Complete Street Demonstration Project under construction on Park Street.

What have you witnessed that has driven long term sustainable and successful impacts in communities?


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