Table for Two: Connecting On the Table to Local Planning Initiatives

May 21, 2019 by On the Table NLN

Every community has their own goals for their On the Table conversations and they will – and should – be different. In this series, “Table for Two,” we meet up with two organizers about how they used input from their conversations to inform strategic planning in their communities.

On the Table provides a unique opportunity to listen to and learn from our communities, elevating the issues and opportunities on the forefront on residents’ minds. Several convening organizations have leveraged their communities’ On the Table conversations to inform the development of local strategic and economic development plans.

In this “Table for Two,” we sit down with Lisa Adkins (LA), president/CEO, Blue Grass Community Foundation (BGCF) in Lexington, Kentucky, whose 2017 conversations fulfilled a public participation component of a legislatively-mandated city-county comprehensive plan, and Kathryn Dennis (KD), president, Community Foundation of Central Georgia (CFCG) in Macon, where input from their 2018 conversations helped build that region’s five-year community and economic development plan.

 How and why did you decide to incorporate On the Table into your city planning process? How had public participation in that process been solicited in the past? 

LA: At the time Blue Grass Community Foundation (BGCF) was planning our first On the Table in 2017, Lexington was in the midst of preparing a legislatively mandated five-year update for our unified city-county comprehensive strategy document, “Imagine Lexington”. Imagine Lexington is designed to create a vision and strategy that will allow our region to grow and prosper, while preserving, protecting and enhancing existing neighborhoods, our downtown and the rural Bluegrass cultural landscape. In prior years, the Department of Planning would do five community input meetings as part of this process, generally attracting about 300 participants—often attracting the same people, lots of developers and business interests.

BGCF has had a long history of partnering with City government and Office of the Mayor. We approached the City about working together to use On the Table as a way to rethink how we engage our community in the development of the comprehensive plan. Our interests really aligned and the On the Table tagline of “Your Voice Matters.” really resonated with our community.  We framed our conversation prompts around the questions: “What do you love about your community and what can we do to make it better?” In total, approximately 11,500 residents of the Blue Grass region participated in our On the Table discussions that year.

KD: One important part of the Community Foundation of Central Georgia’s decision to participate in On The Table last year (2018) was that we wanted to listen to our residents and use those insights to help build our community’s second five-year community and economic development plan, “OneMacon!”.

Public participation in the development of the first OneMacon! plan included a survey promoted in the local newspaper, six focus groups and about 25 one-on-one interviews. There were also two public meetings – the first midway through the plan to test themes uncovered and a second to unveil the plan.

We were hopeful that incorporating On the Table into the OneMacon! planning process would greatly expand public participation and it did. Nearly 5,000 people participated in more than 600 On the Table conversations in every zip code across our community. Surveys from these participants are being closely reviewed by the Steering Committee and consultants charged with the development of the OneMacon! Plan.

Describe your relationship with the city/county leaders – Who did you work with? How involved were they in the development of prompts, survey questions, in hosting? 

KD: Our Mayor was a key advocate for On the Table. He agreed that the County would host conversations and also filmed a promotional video to encourage our residents to participate. He named a County leader to serve on our Steering Committee and she was very active in the planning process, including the development of the prompts and survey questions, and in planning tables.

More than half of our County Commissioners hosted tables. For one event, the Commission Clerk invited community members who regularly sign in to speak at Commission meetings. What had been adversarial relationships actually turned into mutual respect once the Commission member and citizens had time to talk over a meal. 

Most recently, the Mayor began his 2019 State of the Community Address and referred throughout the speech to data from our survey of On the Table participants. The top issue of concern identified by participants in the survey was crime and violence; our Sheriff used data from our survey in a speech to announce a new program to find dangerous criminals and get them off the street. Local community leaders who participated in On the Table are also using the survey to see where positive change had occurred in the five years following the development of our first OneMacon! plan.

LA: For us, it was a very collaborative process. The City participated in the development of our participant survey and absolutely used results. They also developed a form for participants to take notes during their On the Table conversations and encouraged them to share that information in real-time on social media and through email. They were at BGCF that day monitoring and analyzing thousands of pieces of feedback and data.

Our 2019 On the Table conversations are scheduled for Wednesday, March 27. The focus for this year will be on belonging—how we can make our region more welcoming and inclusive for the benefit of all our residents. We are once again working in partnership with our elected officials, including our new Mayor and the “Neighborhoods in Transition” task force of our City Council, so that they can listen and learn from On the Table discussions. 

How did the final plan incorporate feedback from On the Table

LA: Our City and County leaders have talked about On the Table extensively in the media, at public meetings and our partnership in building public participation in the planning process was detailed in the Imagine Lexington Public Input Report.

Input from On the Table participants also substantively impacted the actual plan itself. One of the biggest issues in our region is land use – it’s our most precious resource. We are balancing rural preservation of Blue Grass rural landscape, agriculture and thoroughbred equine industry alongside our desire to have a vibrant growing city. There is a tension – the landscape makes us unique and is key to a critical industry in our region, but we need more space for housing and want to encourage economic development. The 50-mile urban service boundary that protects our rural landscape and focuses development in a central area of our City held in part because of public feedback in On the Table indicating overwhelming support.

KD: Our new OneMacon! plan will not be completed until late summer (2019). On the Table has been very helpful to the consultants charged with the development of that plan in better understanding the context around many of the issues raised in their initial meetings with the local civic leadership and elected officials. It also showed them how well our community comes together. They took that as a very optimistic sign for their upcoming work and for the future of our region. 

Data from our survey of On the Table participants has provided baseline information around some critical community attributes that will be incorporated into a community dashboard to be released alongside the OneMacon! plan.

Any tips or lessons learned for another community looking to connect On the Table to a community strategic planning process?

KD:  Working with your local government when planning On the Table is beneficial to the entire community. Conversations between citizens and their elected officials over a meal are very powerful for both parties. Insights from these conversations and the subsequent survey of On the Table participants can provide data to empower citizens to request change from local government and local government can use that same data to better focus resources in response to community needs. 

LA: This was a mutually beneficial partnership for our community. Neither our government nor BGCF could not have done this work alone. The community partners and residents that BGCF and others were able to bring into the public participation process made the input received more objective and diverse. I encourage anyone who is planning on using On the Table to take our Imagine Lexington Public Input report to the mayor, county commission or planning division in their region and show them the power of this initiative and how well it worked for us.

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