Share your ideas about the future of Springfield

Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln launches a community engagement project

click to enlarge GRAPHICS COURTESY CFLL
GRAPHICS COURTESY CFLL

Do you have an idea – big or small – about the future of the capital city? The Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln (CFLL) wants to hear from you.

Over the next six weeks, from now until Thanksgiving, local citizens are invited to share their ideas about the future of the greater Springfield region. "The Next Ten" is a collaborative community engagement initiative led by the CFLL. According to the CFLL, the purpose is to "put the wheels in motion on bold, visionary and catalytic projects to spark a fresh conversation about Springfield's potential – and lay out steps to elevate the community's livability, economy, creativity and spirit."

"We don't know what the next 10 minutes, 10 weeks, 10 months or 10 years will hold, and we can't simply wait to find out," says John Stremsterfer, president and CEO of CFLL. "We must take the next 10 steps together for the future of Greater Springfield."

This is not another survey. Nor is it intended as a long-range plan that sits on a shelf. It is results oriented. The initiative is designed to identify actionable projects and ideas that can be implemented in the near term, have a clear source of funding and have champions to lead the projects.

A steering committee has been named to help promote community participation, review and vet ideas and identify leaders to move projects forward. Stremsterfer describes the steering committee (p.15) as a group of optimistic-minded people who want Springfield to be a better place. They all have strong ties to the community and have experience bringing initiatives from the idea stage to fruition.

A consultant with expertise in community visioning has been hired to bring fresh approaches and innovative ways to engage the community. The process is grass-roots and community-driven, not top-down, government-driven. It is designed to be open and inviting to ensure all voices are heard. This approach has the support of community organizers as well as elected officials. Projects will be announced in the first quarter of 2021, along with the next steps to move them forward from idea to reality.

Dominic Watson, president of the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce, agreed to serve on the steering committee. He graduated from Benedictine University, started his own business at the age of 22 and is a dedicated Black business advocate and community organizer working to make Springfield equitable for all who live here. His full-time job is as a lobbyist with AFSCME. He supports "The Next Ten" initiative, citing the importance of it being a community-driven project. He emphasizes the need for diverse voices and wants to ensure the future looks bright for all of Springfield. Watson credits John Stremsterfer and the Community Foundation as being forward-thinking. He says the people on the steering committee are creative thinkers across diverse industries who are stakeholders in the community. They will use their relationships to spread enthusiasm about the project, put boots on the ground and give creative projects legs on which to stand.

Mayor Jim Langfelder also supports the CFLL leading this initiative. He says there are plenty of plans that don't get implemented due to lack of funding or community buy-in. He endorses this bottoms-up community engagement approach, led by a neutral party, to help identify community needs and opportunities that can help move the city forward. He says the community-driven approach by the CFLL is reinforced by successful initiatives of the Mayors' Institute on City Design, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He's experienced how a top-down approach, even if well-intentioned, may not be well-received and that true community buy-in is essential. He's interested to see what ideas emerge about how best to use community assets, such as the now-vacant Benedictine University campus.

How to share ideas

An interactive website is designed for people to share their ideas, learn what others are proposing and engage in a conversation around those ideas. Go to https://tn10.org/ to get involved and for more information about how to stay connected. One section of the website is an "ideas wall" to capture ideas related to business and the economy, social services, youth and education, environment and health, culture and recreation, infrastructure and mobility. Another section is map-based, where people can share ideas about specific locations. Put a pin in your neighborhood, your school or any place that is important to you and share your ideas. The interactive website allows others to see and comment on your idea. Have a suggestion about what should happen with the old Pillsbury Mills plant, the Y block or any other site or geographic area? You can enter your comments and start a conversation.

Al Grosboll, CFLL vice-chair and board member from Petersburg, emphasizes that this visioning project extends to the Greater Springfield area, not simply the city of Springfield and Sangamon County. He notes the extraordinary cultural and historic resources of central Illinois and the need to do a better job attracting tourism and economic development that capitalizes on these regional assets. He also cites the potential opportunity of growing farm-to-table restaurants and how adjoining counties are integral as the food source. Recreational opportunities are also a reason to extend the conversation beyond Springfield.

Other innovative ways to gather public input will be rolled out over the next six weeks. Responses will be tracked by ZIP code, and efforts will be made to reach out to any areas that are underrepresented. The CFLL wants to hear from individuals, not just community leaders. And, it is a priority to hear from those whose voices aren't always heard.

Centro, a Denver-based consulting firm, is assisting with community engagement. Stremsterfer said Centro was chosen in response to a request for proposals because of the innovative ways it approaches community engagement, its creative marketing strategies and its understanding of how to get things done. Centro's clients are diverse, including communities in Colorado, the Chicago Loop Alliance and Urban Redevelopment Authority in Singapore. Centro assembled a national advisory council for this project comprised of people with expertise in the arts, placemaking, workforce development, health care, retail strategy, equitable development, creative business concepts and community engagement.

Jamie Giellis is the founder and president of Centro. She grew up in a small town in Iowa, worked in community development in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and moved to Denver where she founded a consulting company involved in downtown revitalization and urban neighborhood visioning. Her commitment to revitalization of cities led her to run for mayor of Denver in 2019. She lost the race against a two-term incumbent, but this experience influenced how she works with communities to look at untapped opportunities and focus on different ways of building strong and healthy communities.

Giellis says Centro guides individuals in identifying alternatives and possibilities, grounded in the stories and history of a place, and works to unite stakeholders in realizing a vision. She was drawn to this project for many reasons. She says Springfield has great people and great opportunities and needs a shot in the arm. She is inspired by what the Community Foundation is trying to do and pursuing visioning in a time when we don't know what's in store for tomorrow or next year. There's no protocol for engaging people during a pandemic, she says. She welcomes the opportunity to work with the CFLL to think boldly and act. Giellis says it is important to inspire people to think fresh, push back on old ways of doing things and work from the ground up. Knowing a story line, being authentic and having everyone at the table are critical to achieving the best outcomes, says Giellis.

From ideas to action

The hard work will begin after the community engagement period. While all ideas are welcome and will be reviewed, the intent is to deliver tangible results. Initiatives will be selected only if they can be implemented in the short term, have a clear source of funding and have a champion to lead the initiative.

The CFLL will work with members of the steering committee to prioritize actions and develop details about champions, resources, partners and policies necessary to turn an idea into a plan of action. Availability of funding is often a barrier to implementation. Marshaling its network of supporters and partners to get things done will be a top priority for the CFLL. The CFLL will have some funding to allocate to projects and ideas, drawing on a variety of its funds. For several years the CFLL has been laying the groundwork for this initiative among local stakeholders.

click to enlarge GRAPHICS COURTESY CFLL
GRAPHICS COURTESY CFLL

The mission of the CFLL is to "connect people who care with causes that matter," which is what the CFLL will work to accomplish as priorities and opportunities are identified. Stremsterfer is optimistic that individuals, businesses and organizations will entertain funding good initiatives that fit their respective missions and passions, once the ideas are prioritized and people can see the benefits. "It won't be easy, for sure, but we believe it's worth the effort and are hopeful this process inspires many to pitch in," says Stremsterfer. 

"The Next Ten" projects will be announced in the first quarter of 2021, along with the action steps to move them forward.

How this came about

The community visioning project has been a few years in the making, sparked in part by visiting similarly sized communities with community foundations known for exceptional initiatives that ramped up the vibrancy of their cities. Two years ago, CFLL staff and board members visited Dubuque, Iowa, and Madison, Wisconsin. A community visioning project in Dubuque a decade ago led to a transformed downtown and policy changes that made things possible, with results continuing today. After seeing this potential, the CFLL made community visioning an integral part of its strategic plan.

"If you've seen one community foundation, you've seen one community foundation," says Stremsterfer. While there are commonalities among community foundations, how each community foundation serves its community is unique. Stremsterfer says that more and more groups have come to the CFLL asking for help on how to get things done. Addressing homeless issues and expanding diversity on nonprofit boards are just two examples. These requests have intensified after launching Innovate Springfield and handing it off to University of Illinois Springfield, says Stremsterfer. The CFLL was also alarmed by recent surveys that revealed a significant increase in the number of people who are considering leaving Sangamon County.

Stremsterfer says the CFLL strives to be forward-thinking and forward-looking for the betterment of the community. Because it has a broad mission, it isn't restricted by a single focus and can work on all sorts of projects. It also brings a nonpartisan approach to issues. So, for a number of reasons, the timing was right to lead a process to bring people together to envision the future of Springfield. COVID-19 delayed the launch, but the uncertainties of the future due to COVID make it more important than ever to proceed, says Stremsterfer.

Get involved

Organizers say there is a need to develop a longer-term vision for the future of Springfield and bring people together to get things done. It's easy for people to be cynical about whether their voice will be heard. The CFLL has stepped up to take on a community visioning initiative, and the organization is widely recognized as an honest broker. The groundwork has been laid for a community visioning project that is supported by business and community leaders, city and county elected officials and state elected officials who represent the greater Springfield community.

Now it is your turn. Get involved and share your ideas about the future of our community.

To get started, go to https://tn10.org/.

About the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln

The Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln (CFLL) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that is involved in many of the big issues facing the greater Springfield community. It began in 1924 when three banks provided financial resources for local charitable causes. Incorporated as the Sangamon County Community Foundation in 2002 with one fund and $800,000 in assets, it has grown to over 220 funds with more than $44 million in total assets. In 2011 the name was changed to the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln to provide an opportunity to serve both philanthropists and charitable organizations in neighboring communities that don't currently have a community foundation. The CFLL now serves Sangamon, Cass, Christian, Logan, Macoupin, Menard, Montgomery and Morgan counties. John Stremsterfer, the founding president, has served as president and CEO since 2003.

In 2019, the CFLL awarded more than $2.8 million in grants. The CFLL manages many types of funds, with a myriad of ways for donors to invest in causes that matter to them. Many individuals and families have established funds that allow them to direct their gifts to a specific charity or charities. Donors can also contribute to a specific cause, with the Community Foundation managing a process to fund specific projects. Examples include historic preservation, the arts, education, the environment and accessible recreation. The CFLL manages endowment fund investments on behalf of many nonprofit community organizations. There are also numerous scholarship funds as well as unrestricted funds that the CFLL directs to priority community needs. There are two giving circles – Women for Women and Young Philanthropists – where like-minded donors pool their resources in order to provide larger scale and more impactful grants than they could do individually.

The CFLL is no stranger to being a catalyst and facilitator to tackle big issues. Examples include helping launch Innovate Springfield, a social innovation and business incubator; partnering with other organizations to fund a coordinator position to address homelessness issues in Springfield; and providing community organizations with greater access to training about understanding and dismantling systemic racism.

Most recently the CFLL partnered with the United Way of Central Illinois to create a COVID-19 Response Fund. Nearly $1,000,000 was distributed through 89 grants to 80 organizations to help vulnerable populations and support nonprofit organizations impacted by the pandemic. Individuals, corporations, community organizations and private foundations responded to the call, and more than 260 donors contributed to the fund. A Pandemic Community Advisory Group comprised of local leaders helped identify emerging community needs and select projects to be funded. Grants helped local agencies provide emergency food and supplies, utility assistance, support for children impacted by child care and school closings and assistance to vulnerable populations. –Karen Witter

Karen Ackerman Witter is a frequent contributor to Illinois Times. As a part-time freelance writer and community volunteer, her goal is to connect people, organizations and ideas to achieve greater results. She serves on the steering committee for the Women for Women giving circle of the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln.

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