THRIVE Regional Partnerships optimizes community development opportunities, inspires growth from within, enhances regional connectivity in Southeast TN area

BY Honna Rogers
MTAS Management Consultant

Recently the Tennessee southeast region has seen tremendous growth in population and industry. It was during this time that THRIVE 2055 was born in an effort to grow in a smart way.

From 2012 to 2015, community volunteers created a 40-year regional plan for 16 counties in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. I served on the coordinating committee, which was the governing body made up of 30 community, business, and nonprofit leaders.

We held citizen input meetings and consultants compiled data on a 16-county tri-state scale for the very first time. The group identified a shared regional vision (“educated people with good jobs living in a great place”) and established a strategic plan of action.

Four key priority initiatives were determined as the primary forces driving the future prosperity of the region: regional transportation, regional economic development, natural treasures, and education and workforce training. The overall process resulted in 37 key goals for the next 40 years. Once this part of the process was completed in 2015, the Thrive Regional Partnership was formed in order to carry on the regional vision.

There have been great things happening in all areas of Thrive’s focus, but one great example of the work of Thrive is the Thriving Communities program. Thrive Regional Partnership adopts an understanding that driving forces such as economic development, education and workforce preparedness, community culture (the arts), and natural resources are symbiotic. In the perfect world we strive for, they all exist together and mutually benefit each other. After all, businesses are attracted to places that will offer their employees and families recreational space outside of the office, and cultural assets that they can take pride in. That often-remarked “sense of place” is becoming increasingly more important for businesses as they continue to attract talent of emerging generations.

With that matrix in mind, the Thriving Communities program equips active, imaginative citizens with the professional development and community coaching they need to catalyze a strategy in creative placemaking, ultimately nurturing a community model which generates “growth from within.”

By turning a vacant lot in a downtown setting to a concert venue, for example, a town can create a third place, a “living room” where residents and visitors can gather in the spirit of community. It is assets such as this that not only attract businesses, and relocating families, but, ideally, the children who grow up in these communities who may ultimately want to return and contribute to their home base.

The Thriving Communities program excels in its emphasis on experimental testing of placemaking strategies, which allows the teams to “fail early to succeed sooner.” The participants are able to galvanize supporters and key partners early in the process, and test low-budget versions of their strategy three times to see what works and what could be improved.

After nine months, they have a veritable strategy in place, with real evaluative data and feedback from their communities, to pitch to prospective funders. Even if they do not receive funding, Thrive has made a major investment in their professional development skills and community vibrancy strategy that is something that they can fine-tune and iterate for future sponsor opportunities. Rob Bradham, president and CEO of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce, described the Thriving Communities program as having “changed the psychology” of Dalton, Ga.

At the end of the program, each participant has experienced a thought-shift that opens a whole new set of values, ideas, and goals for their community. They become visionaries.
According to Susan Jarrett from Whitwell, “The Thriving Communities process has been about finding an identity. It was always there, but we needed to make the intangible tangible. We needed to find our voice, and Thrive has given us the platform to stand up and say, ‘This is who we are. This is where we want to go next.’”

This program has graduated 12 communities in the past two years. The four 2018 Thriving Communities engaged more than 200 volunteers, worked with 75 partners, and generated $101,255 in monetary and in-kind contributions.

In addition, there has been a total of $82,000 granted to the first round of communities from the Lyndhurst Foundation through an application process. The round two applicants are now eligible to apply for and potentially receive a grant up to $20,000. I’m not sure about your community, but most communities would love to have a group of citizens working toward creating creative placemaking spaces and have some seed money given toward the space.

So, what are you doing in your community to improve it? Do you have citizens with different talents who could step up and gift their ideas to you? Have you asked? Perhaps you could see great changes in your community if you do, and especially if you work together with other communities to set a vision and work together. Who would want to have educated people with good jobs living in a great place?

I firmly believe that the best communities start with planning and that planning starts with listening to your residents. I hope you will consider how you can benefit your citizens most by working with communities around you. After all, we need each other to succeed.