Creating Support for a Center of Opportunity in your Town

What IS a Center of Opportunity?

A Center of Opportunity is a location in any municipality that already shows some signs of growth. It would generally have a mix of residential and commercial activity, and is no more than a half-mile in diameter. It has sufficient available land to absorb growth comfortably, and either has or can support new utilities, telecommunications, and transportation Infrastructure to support the demands of 21st century businesses, and easy movement by car, walking, and bicycle within the center. In other words, it is an area already poised for growth and development.

Where could a Center be located?

Centers of Opportunity can be located in every municipality, small and large. They can range in size from an small urban neighborhood to an isolated rural crossroads to a more defined village center.  These places will tap into the current market’s desire for safe, livable, and walkable neighborhoods, with choices of housing and transportation.

What will a Center do for your municipality?

Centers of Opportunity will benefit from focused investments in infrastructure so they can absorb growth and meet the needs of 21st century businesses and their workers. This will create significant tax income for their host communities. And by positioning themselves to absorb a significant share of growth over the next 25 years, they will help keep the surrounding rural landscape and character from over-development, preserving the open space and rural character Mainers value.

How to get started

Suppose as an interested citizen or a local official, you think that a particular area in your town or city might have the potential to become a center of opportunity. What do you do?

To be successful, an effort of this sort needs local support. If you’re a resident, the first step is to talk with other residents who live or work in and around that area, familiarize them with the concept, and find out if they are interested. If you’re a local official, you should raise the idea at a council or select board meeting, talk with your staff, and decide how to reach out to the public on this idea (more on that below.)

But before you start!  Nine other communities have already begun developing a center of opportunity. To see details on how they did it, go here at the Sustain Southern Maine website and click on a community similar to yours.

Below is what Sustain Southern Maine learned first-hand through it’s own work with nine pilot centers of opportunity located throughout Cumberland and York Counties:

WHAT WORKS 

  • Small meetings are very effective tools for good discussion. Start with a small group of folks who can informally talk about the possibilities. The meeting can be at a municipal facility, or at someone’s home if you haven’t gotten municipal officials involved yet. A brief presentation will get the conversation started. If your municipal planner is involved, he or she could provide some maps showing parcels, roads, and perhaps environmental constraints such as wetlands. (This is not essential for the first meeting but is a good conversation starter as most people love maps.) If not, either Google Earth or Bing can be used online to look at the area in question.
  • If you don’t have a town planner, you can contact your regional planning organization (Greater Portland Council of Governments or Southern Maine Planning and Development Council). They can help you pull together additional information, guidance and maps.
  • Reaching out to key players is essential. Make an extra effort (phone call, personal visits) to get those who own land in key locations, have business interests, or who are highly respected involved. It is best if they attend either the first meeting or one of the very early meetings. No one likes to have plans made for their property, especially if they are not in the room.
  • Listen. At this meeting, simply lay out the ideas and possible benefits and let folks talk. Don’t expect conclusions, and do expect skepticism.  Good conversation is always a step in the right direction.
  • Plan the next step.  If there is interest in finding out more, you’re on the right track. Set up a way to be in contact with each other (email, Facebook, a phone tree) and find out what kind of information is desired for the next meeting. Schedule it while you have everyone there.
  • Keep the momentum going. Think of yourself as the person who keeps the process running smoothly, but allow others to be leaders as well. The more “local champions” you can develop for your center of opportunity, the better the chance of success. As the process unfolds, contact other local leaders and your elected officials, to let them know what is being considered and ask if they want to be part of the process. Each community is different, but owners of prominent businesses, heads of local non-profits (including such organizations as the PTA) and church leaders are all possibilities.

Good outreach takes time and the ability to listen. This is a key item to remember. The road to community-supported development will be bumpy, but it is the only way to make successful and lasting change for your community.

OTHER IMPORTANT TIPS 

  • Go beyond the “usual suspects.”  Every community has a small cadre of people who always volunteer. If any of these live or work in your center of opportunity, you will want them to be key supporters, but it helps to reach out to a broader audience, especially to younger people and others who are not usually part of the planning process. Many folks who typically participate in local planning are retired, because they have the time, energy and interest. But young people and families are the future of your community. Find creative ways to get them involved. Work with schools and parent groups on outreach. Hold fun local events to attract participation by families – a bike rodeo, for example –  and talk informally about your ideas.  Write a letter to the editor of your local paper talking about your ideas and asking for volunteers to help explore it further. If you are a church member, ask there. And of course, any younger people who live in your proposed center of opportunity are your first step. But remember, you will need to start out by going to them, as young families typically have a lot of their plate. And if your community is fortunate enough to be home to an emerging immigrant population, you can consider taking advantage of their energy and fresh perspective. Your town officials can help identify who in this community you could contact first.
  • Large public hearing-type meetings can derail the process.  In New England, our heritage of large public meetings often suggests that this is the go-to method of public outreach. In truth, the kind of public meeting that draws a large crowd tends to be those where people are trying to block a project, not support it. We have found that a more informal workshop-like meeting will often provide a better opportunity for people to listen and learn from each other.  If you plan to have a large meeting or workshop during your process, make sure you have developed plenty of support first and that those supporters can attend and explain what this concept could do for the community.

TOOLS AND IMPORTANT CONCEPTS

HOW GPCOG and SMPDC can help. Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG) and the Southern Maine Planning and Development Council (SMPDC) are, respectively, the regional planning organizations for most municipalities in Cumberland and York Counties – and are leading members of Sustain Southern Maine.  They can provide guidance and tools for your center of opportunity in the form of data, maps and general planning support.

Sparking your community’s imagination! As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Use visuals to help people imagine what “could be”. You can easily get started with this by going here for a description of the different levels of centers, including illustrations and examples. You’ll also find a series of helpful websites. Ask your municipal planner or a GPCOG/SMPDC planner to help identify other low-cost resources. There may be architects, landscape architects, engineers or planners living in your municipality or neighborhood who might volunteer to be part of the process. Once you’ve got your location identified and a group of supporters in place, you’ll be in a position to create a specific list of next steps to flesh our your planning efforts.  These may include identifying funding to create a more detailed master plan, looking at changing local ordinances to support this kind of growth, identifying infrastructure needs and funding (sewer, water, roads and paths, etc.) and, of course, continuing to generate public support.

EMBRACE the natural desire for green space. Most everyone is attracted to green space, which can be broadly described as parks, commons, trees, woods and even agricultural land. Along with water views and places that are attractive to sit, green space rates very high in most visual preference exercises. Especially in a rural state like Maine, access to green space will be a very important part of your center, whether you are working in a rural neighborhood center, a larger suburban downtown center or even an urban downtown. In rural locations, even if more homes and businesses are generally seen as desirable, there is a strong fear of losing that rural connection. Make sure a significant part of your center is devoted to green space, especially combined with attractive gathering areas.  If a trail network, urban or rural, is close-by, make sure you connect your center to it. Gaining support for improving a trail system can go far in energizing your community. Here are some good examples of attractive green space.

Help people understand the benefits of balancing commercial and residential growth. In many communities, residential growth is seen as something that drives up taxes, while commercial growth contributes to the bottom line. This is because a home’s property tax often does not fully offset the cost of services provided, primarily school costs. In an effort to keep taxes low, communities often try to attract new commercial investment regardless of where it wants to locate and what the effect might be on local traffic.

But demographics and needs are changing, and if your community wants to be in the forefront of developing the kind of vibrant, walkable center that will attract an energetic population, a different kind of thinking is needed. Residential growth should come first. These centers of opportunity, at a community or neighborhood level, will be magnets for a mix of families, and older and younger people. Purposefully developing an area of smaller-space residential homes creates an attractive and marketable location for small businesses to locate nearby, which can then depend on these residents as a solid customer base.  As Elliott Chamberlain, owner of Chamberlain Homes, says, “When we created Dunstan Crossing in Scarborough, we developed the Phase 1 residential component first. Now that Phase 1 is a solid success, we are moving on to providing commercial opportunities: retail stores and restaurants.”

For more examples of places where this is already working, go here.

Why different kinds of housing is important. In every single community Sustain Southern Maine worked in, residents were very clear that they did not want to create housing just for wealthy people. They wanted to create a mix of housing, for young and old, for retirees and people just starting out and for established households. Since a higher percentage of the housing in centers of opportunity is smaller, this means it will often be more affordable. Overall, Southern Maine suffers from a lack of affordable housingfor young people starting out. For more information on this check out Dana Totman’s presentation at our Affordable Housing Knowledge Sharing Session.  There is also an enormous gap in housing needs for healthy retirees looking to downsize. Create smaller, yet reasonably priced, quality housing in a walkable environment and buyers and renters will be beating down your door.  A great example of this is Northland Enterprises mill redevelopment project in Sanford.

Developing a Center of Opportunity

Building housing and commercial space in a center is not typically the responsibility of a municipality. Rather, the municipal role is to create the plan: what do residents want to see, where should new buildings go and what kind, maybe even some guidelines on what they should look like.  (We found during the Sustain Southern Maine process that many communities cared deeply about keeping the character of their town intact, so creating design guidelines was a popular idea.) Decide where new sidewalks, bike paths and even new roads should be placed – and then, try to make it easy for a developer to want to invest. This is not as hard as it sounds.

Why? Developers value predictability and lower cost. If there are clear, enforced town standards in terms of timing, fees and approvals, the developer will know going in what to expect and how long it will take to get approval. Since his/her time is money, this is important. Every developer we talked with said that the predictability of the process was worth a lot to them. Cost is not always something that a municipality can control, but process certainly is.

But here is a key point: If you want to make your center a success and attract private development, the municipality must make the center an attractive place for developers to invest – not just more attractive than surrounding communities, but more attractive than other locations within your own community.

Moving Forward

We are sure you will have additional questions on creating a center of opportunity in your community. Remember, there is no single, correct way to make this happen, as each community has it’s own opportunities, challenges and personality. But you can also learn from other communities. Do not hesitate to contact GPCOG or SMPDC, who can link you with other communities who are working on similar projects.