Guest post from Monte Roulier, President of Community Initiatives
A few weeks ago Forbes Magazine came out with their list of the Best Cities to Raise a Family. I hardly give these endless rankings of “Best Of’s” any attention. But when I saw Scranton Pennsylvania was #8, I double clicked.
It was 1994-1995 when a group of Scranton civic leaders (under the name of Scranton Tomorrow) concluded it was time for a new way to approach the region’s future. Inspired by several other communities using a Healthier Communities process, they launched Forging the Future. This “long-term, vision-driven, holistic, participative, asset-oriented, and upstream” model was a radical departure from the status quo.
Each month for fourteen months, approximately 300 diverse stakeholders endeavored to shape a plan that would bend negative trends and realize untapped potential. As a young staffer at the National Civic League, I had the privilege of being the lead consultant and facilitator for Forging the Future. This was one of my first opportunities to be a lead consultant/facilitator of such a broad effort (and I made plenty of rookie mistakes). Despite their unseasoned consultant, local residents patiently and relentlessly marched forward to define an ambitious twenty-year vision.
The process birthed seven Key Performance Action Teams focused on areas such as Economy & Jobs and Arts & Culture. With one of the highest downtown business vacancy rates in the country, the group surfaced and implemented a number of strategies to revitalize downtown through a coordinated approach to arts, culture and tourism—taking advantage of local talent and of aging, though once wonderful, music and theatre venues.
In the mid-to-late 1800’s Scranton was a boomtown. The Scranton brothers built the Lackawanna and Western Railroad. They also invested in coal mining operations in the city to fuel their steel operations, and to market it to businesses. During this time, the city was transformed from a small, agrarian-based village to a multicultural, industrial based city. The nation’s first successful, continuously operating electrified streetcar system was established in the city in 1886, giving it the nickname “The Electric City”. The growth of coal mining and steel manufacturing (Lackawanna Steel Company at one point was the largest steel plant in the US) created a booming economy and gave rise to beautiful buildings, including music and theatre venues, throughout the city center. However, after WWII, coal lost favor, the economy completely collapsed—resulting in large-scale unemployment and a legacy of environmental damage through the abandoned mines.
In 1995, Scranton Tomorrow was trying to figure out how to overcome the region’s decades-long collapse and recreate a brighter future for young people and families. They wanted to know what would make this a compelling place to live and/or return to raise a family. During a focus group, high school students highlighted a key obstacle—most of our lives we are told or it’s implied that if you stay here, it’s because we’re not good enough to leave. And with that hard dose of reality, civic leaders got to work. They developed new plans for the physical infrastructure, making the once magnificent downtown a destination for work and play. Scranton Tomorrow started to see it’s assets, such as Steamtown Park and Museums, Lackawanna River Heritage Trail, Montage Ski Resort, and many musical venues as an affordable family friendly alternative to the more expensive New York and Pennsylvania attractions. And as a family friendly alternative to these bigger cities.
Forging the Future stakeholders were especially interested in fostering a greater sense of community. One of their action teams was actually called Community Involvement & Identity, a group focused on creating spaces, events and networks (especially for families and young professionals) that would connect people, and increase civic participation and pride.
I was touched by the sincerity of community members and civic leaders willingness to work for the common good of their future, recognizing that this might take decades. No doubt this work, catalyzed literally twenty years ago and carried forward by the dedication of thousands since has resulted in one of the Best Places to Raise A Family!