Community Development Society

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4 ways to promote community participation and engagement

Helping Rural Communities address Drinking Water Needs through Best Practices in Community Development

By Chris Marko, Rural Development Specialist with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), Community Development Society (CDS) Board Member

As this country’s infrastructure continues to age, communities face increasing challenges with providing  basic services, including drinking water.  While the majority of the nation’s population lives in larger communities, there are many more small communities, and drinking water systems.  Statistically small communities (less than 5,000 in population) are more likely to face compliance violations, which require system improvements and can be costly.  Small communities often have limited revenue base to pay for large projects, limited technical, managerial, and financial capacity to take on projects, and political will at the local level to bear the burden of taking on necessary improvements is becoming more and more of a challenge.  

20 years ago grant money was more available.  Now much of the available financing for projects is in the form of loans that require taking on debt.  To compound issues, many communities have not kept up with costs to cover existing and future costs of operating systems, which can cause “sticker shock” when faced with the need to finance a multi-million dollar drinking water project.  In my work I assist communities who face these challenges and would like to share how some best practices in community development help me work with staff, elected officials, and the public.

1. Promote active and representative participation toward enabling all community members to meaningfully influence the decisions that affect their lives. The past few months I have been involved with a community facing opposition from community members regarding a proposed drinking water project.  The public meeting last month was very contentious and participants asked many questions which the city could not answer at the time.  As a next step part of the strategy was to be responsive and address questions specifically, reach out to the community, and conduct additional public meetings.  The city held two meetings that included responses to the questions and was facilitated in a way that encouraged participation in a constructive and considerate manner.  While there was opposition to the project expressed, the meeting went much better as people were heard and acknowledged. 

2. Engage community members in learning about and understanding community issues, and the economic, social, environmental, political, psychological, and other impacts associated with alternative courses of action.  The city considered a number of alternatives to making drinking water improvements.  The city faced a compliance issue regarding water pressure which needed to be addressed to meet State requirements.  The master plan identified a number of additional deficiencies in the water system, including distribution lines, fire hydrants, and storage.  The city has worked with funding agencies to identify a funding package with the lowest interest loan with some “principal forgiveness” (no interest) funding available.  The city presented various funding scenarios, reasons for taking on a project which goes beyond meeting compliance, and considers additional improvements which will be necessary for the future of the community residents and economy.  In response to questions about relief for low income residents regarding a rate increase the city responded by working with the local non-profit community action agency to develop a fund for water rate assistance for low income residents which incorporated the diverse interests and cultures of the community in the community development process.

3. Work actively to enhance the leadership capacity of community members, leaders, and groups within the community.  By facilitating the most recent public meetings in a manner that encouraged community participants to share their views in a constructive, considerate manner, and emphasizing how the city appreciates input, and will continue to be responsive to questions significantly helped the process.  Part of the outreach strategy developed included connecting with local groups and attending meetings to further educate the community about the importance of improving the drinking water system.  As a technical assistance provider I reviewed statements prepared by the lead city council person who presented a summary of reasons why the city needed to take on the project.  Comments emphasized how city leaders need to be responsive to address the existing compliance issue, and also consider the health and safety of residents by providing adequate fire protection, pressure, and storage for the future.  The community has not made significant improvements to the system for over 20 years.  By encouraging councilors to conduct outreach within their community, connect with individuals and groups, and continue to be open, responsive, and appreciative of comments and questions, the feedback on the recent two public meetings was much better due to enhanced community leadership.

4. Be open to using the full range of action strategies to work toward the long-term sustainability and well- being of the community.  As mentioned by city leaders at meetings, news articles, and radio interviews the city reviewed a number of alternatives to address the compliance issue, and considered additional improvements to address deficiencies.  The city decided to take on a larger project, with higher cost utilizing the best available finance terms, than the “minimum fix”.  Community members felt there were options to consider regarding financing, including a general obligation bond instead of the low interest loan package.  The city responded by reviewing the potential financial impact of a general obligation bond on residents compared to the low interest loan package (which included some principal forgiveness).  Based on consultation with bond counsel it was determined the estimated financial impact of the general obligation bond would be higher than the proposed project using loan financing.  Some community members still felt the city should only address the minimum fix and place the burden of financing the project on the few residents where water pressure was lowest.  The city did not feel this was an equitable for the community and decided on a project in terms of long term community benefit. 

While controversy about the proposed water project still exists, more people have expressed support for the proposed project at recent public meetings, and expressed appreciation for the time and effort the city council, staff, and resource providers have taken to respond to questions and remain proactive about addressing problems which have not been dealt with for many years.  The city has utilized principals of good practice in community development to engage the community, respond to questions and issues raised, and address what it feels is in the best interest of the community as a whole.  This is one of many examples of how communities are trying to deal with the challenge of providing basic services, including something essential to life and community sustainability—drinking water.


Edited by Cindy Banyai

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Compiled by Timothy Collins, Assistant Director, Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs

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10 Reasons to Contribute to Vanguard

We are always looking for interesting stories, highlights, and events to share with our CDS membership. But, if that's not enough to compel you to contribute to Vanguard here are 10 additional reasons why you should send me your ideas and articles:

  1. CDS members will get to know who you are - Who doesn't want recognition for their work and projects? Brag a little!
  2. Your ideas seem really important - Hey, it was in Vanguard, right? Must be super important...
  3. We all benefit from sharing - Good ideas begat good ideas.
  4. It gives you an opportunity to start your CDS blog - Good for your development as a thought leader and good for the SEO of the CDS website. Win, win!
  5. You can link back to your website - More SEO
  6. More stuff to post on your social media - Who doesn't need more original content?
  7. Sharing upcoming events = More attendance - Events with more exposure get more attendance. Tell us about your special event.
  8. We get to know your project/organization - Who better to tell us about your organization or project than you!?!
  9. Vanguard will be more robust - Diversity helps our publication. We want to hear from you!
  10. You are wonderful - You are doing great things and I want to celebrate you. So go ahead and share!


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Community Development Headlines - October CDS UpFront


Compiled by Timothy Collins, Assistant Director, Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs


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Mesabi Range: Land of the Sleeping Giant

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America's Fastest-Growing Counties: The 'Burbs Are Back

Driving Alone Dominates 2007-2012 Commuting Trend

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President's Update - Hopes for Congressional Lemonade

I write this note at a time when our country is facing some serious challenges.  As a result of ideological differences in Congress most federal agencies are closed and the debate about the raising of our national debt continues strong.  While I do not intend to enter into the political fray over the 2014 federal budget or the debt ceiling, I do believe what we represent in CDS is the antithesis of what we see happening in Washington, DC.   Certainly, many of us have worked in communities where deep-seeded differences among local factions have paralyzed the capacity of communities to act on key priorities.  But our training and experiences have provided us with skills and processes to help local people find common ground – to realize the great heights that communities can achieve when people and groups decide to work together to advance the long-term well-being of their communities.   I often think of the work that Ron Hustedde and his colleagues pursued several years ago titled “Turning Lemons into Lemonade” that was intended to help mediate community conflicts.   Let’s hope Congress soon will begin to produce lemonade!

On a less serious note, I would like to let you know that under the leadership of Tony Gauvin and his committee, we are finalizing the contract with the firm that will be revising our CDS website.  I want to thank Tony and his CDS committee members for the many hours they spent securing and reviewing applications and for finalizing the contract with the firm that was chosen. You will see the fruits of their labor in the next few months as major improvements in the CDS website are realized. 

Finally, the “Save the Date” information regarding the 2014 CDS annual conference is now posted on the CDS website.  Please make plans to join us on July 20-23 in Dubuque, IA to take part in an exciting program.  Keep an eye on the website since the “call for proposals” for participation in the meeting is slated to be released soon.  Please let me know if you have anything you would like to have the CDS Board address at its upcoming fall face-to-face meeting scheduled for November 8-9.  My email is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  Thanks!!



Bo Beaulieu

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Charts of Note - October

Compiled by Timothy Collins, Assistant Director, Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs


Unavailable because of government shutdown


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CD Practice: Chance for practitioners to put on their scholarship

The important niche that the Community Development Society holds for the field is bringing together scholars and practitioners.  Conferences and publications make that happen and CD Practice is where thoughtful practitioners can shine. 

Why should practitioners share their tools in a scholarly publication?  The answers to that question are more practical than you might think:

  • Sharing the tools and strategies you use in a peer-reviewed publication provides an external opinion that your organization or program has merit. Funders and collaborators will appreciate that endorsement.
  • The process of writing an article can help you think through your purpose and process in a way you never thought of it before.  This can ultimately improve your product, or at least the way you describe it to others. One practitioner said it well, “I’ve never been forced to put a lens like this to what we do. And we’ve been doing it for years.”
  • Ever thought of forming a tighter relationship with your local university?  Creating scholarship from your practice can engage students, capstone courses or professors in your work. Again, that affiliation with your university can bring contacts and credibility with some new audiences.
  • Moreover, CD Practice is a chance for you to influence scholars; to recommend that research questions be addressed. 
  • And, of course, published articles are great networking tools.  They are an easy way to share your wealth of knowledge with practitioners and scholars alike across the country and the world.

Curious about how to get started with your submission to CD Practice?  Visit our website or call Joyce Hoelting at 612-625-8233.  

By Joyce Hoelting

Edited by Cindy Banyai




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Community Development Headlines - September CDS UpFront

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