In Their Opinion...

Paul Grasso is the president and CEO of The Development Corporation, Clinton County, New York.

Paul Grasso: Community development has many faces

By: Paul Grasso, Just Sayin'

---- — I’ve noticed a considerable number of conversations on the topic of “community development” recently, particularly in the city.

That’s a positive sign.

Before we get too far into the topic, let me say that there are many definitions of community development. For the purposes of this article, let’s use a basic definition and say that community development is the process where community members organize to create active, livable and sustainable communities.

Community development is about community building — and the “process” is as important as the results.

There are two models to approach community development. One is the needs-based approach (the traditional approach), which focuses on a community’s needs, deficiencies and problems. The other is assets-based community development (ABCD), which builds on the assets that are already found in a community and mobilizes individuals, associations and institutions to come together to build on their assets.

John Kretzmann and John McKnight first broached the ABCD approach in their 1993 book Building Communities from the Inside Out. Think of the ABCD approach as looking at a community and seeing the glass half-full instead of half-empty.

For me, it’s the glass half-full mentality of organizations such as ShineOn, THRIVE, Vision 2 Action and the North Country Center for the Arts that represent our community’s greatest strength. These organizations focus on the essence of what makes our community unique and strong and not on that which we lack. They’ve been the starting point for creating a positive, forward-thinking narrative on how to help build a stronger more vibrant community.

These organizations have kept the focus on our community’s strengths and have identified and mobilized members of the community to step forward and to get involved.

But let’s get back to those conversations about community development.

Listening (sometimes eavesdropping) to these conversations, I’ve also noticed that it isn’t long before the question comes up of whether or not the city needs a community-development staff, and the role that staff could play in helping to revitalize the city.

At the Vision2Action organized mayoral forum in October, the three mayoral candidates articulated three different approaches when asked about whether they would recreate a community-development department. It was one of the few times that there was a clear distinction among the candidates.

What was exciting was that all three candidates indicated that community development is important.

I’m a “form follows function” kinda guy, so their approach to a city community-development office was less important to me than understanding what they hoped to accomplish (form). Once I understood what they hoped to accomplish, I could evaluate how they wanted to organize (function).

Unfortunately, none of the candidates were able to delve too deeply into what they hoped to accomplish.

The question remains, is a community-development staff critical to successful community development? Maybe, maybe not, it all depends on the process through which the community develops.

To answer that question, you need to ask yourself, who is better equipped to build strong, resilient, sustainable communities? Who is best suited to ensure that the communities in which we live are vibrant and innovative, and where we want to live, raise our families and grow old?

I like to think that Plattsburgh can build on the skills of its citizens and use the power of local organizations to develop stronger, more sustainable communities.

It’s community passion and motivation that drives community development. Like personal development, community development must come from within.

But, if a “top down” process is your cup of tea, then maybe we do need a fully staffed community-development office.

However, if a “bottom up” process floats your boat, then maybe we don’t need a fully staffed community-development office.

What these organizations may need is access to grant writers so that they can accelerate their efforts to attract outside resources. What they may need is the willingness for the city to be a grant recipient for state or federal grants that require a government entity to play that role. What they may need is a convener to organize meetings to ensure that the individual efforts of multiple organizations are tracking toward common outcomes. As Aristotle asked, “Is the whole greater than the sum of the parts?”

None of that requires a fully staffed and expensive city department.

In the end, what they may need is to be asked about what it is they need.

Paul Grasso is the president & CEO of The Development Corporation of Plattsburgh.