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Breathing New Life and Prosperity Into Small Town America

A summarized case-study created in partnership between the Milton-Freewater Downtown Alliance, Sherwood Trust, Blue Mountain Action Council, & Pomegranate Center

Imagine a struggling small town with minimal civic involvement where hundreds of community members turn out to take charge of their destiny. This is the story of Milton-Freewater.

Once a core component of our country’s cultural fabric, small towns now struggle to maintain relevance amongst a host of changing economic and cultural forces. However, despite their hardships, below the surface these small towns still pulse with strong civic roots. Rich with relationships that often span generations, residents hold a deep knowledge and unwavering pride in where they live; and their way of life is replete with ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Centered around a series of training, visioning and planning, design and construction efforts, the work completed in Milton-Freewater proves that under the right conditions it is possible to awaken a small town’s deep civic roots to strengthen community, spur economic revitalization, and cultivate a resilient community to face their evolving challenges.


Milton Freewater Water Tower

All-American Town

Milton-Freewater is home to around 7,000 people, nestled at the foot of the Blue Mountains in Northeast Oregon. Hoping to revitalize the town and capitalize on the region’s superior winemaking capacity, the Milton-Freewater Downtown Association (MFDA) caught the attention of Sherwood Trust, a private foundation supporting community development in the Walla Walla Valley. Since 2004, Sherwood Trust helped build local leadership and civic capacity by funding leadership development trainings based on the curriculum developed by The Ford Family Institute and provided by Rural Development Initiatives, Inc. (RDI), along with a series of arts-based community building projects in the area conducted by the Pomegranate Center with assistance from the Blue Mountain Action Council (BMAC).  Milton-Freewater was a perfect opportunity to continue the work of building social capital and community-driven, grass roots initiatives.

Developed over 30 years, the Pomegranate Center’s approach creates community ownership at every stage of work, from generating ideas, prioritizing goals, developing action plans, and leading projects.

 

Road Map for Resurgence

The first phase of this work was to effectively include the community in big-picture thinking and establish a vision for Milton-Freewater’s future. Community members were engaged through a series of public planning and design workshops, quickly followed by an “Early Success” community construction project that demonstrated real, concrete change.

Milton Freewater Community Meeting
One of the several well-attended community meetings in Milton-Freewater.

 

Simultaneously, in an effort to strengthen local leadership, the Pomegranate Center was training 18 Milton-Freewater residents in the Pomegranate method of collaborative community engagement.

Participants in the Pomegranate Center's Fellows Training in Milton-Freewater
Participants in the Pomegranate Center’s Fellows Training in Milton-Freewater

 

Based on feedback from residents, an empty lot was chosen to create a gathering place. Locals showed up in droves to generate goals, identify values, and draw initial sketches at a community meeting that was quickly followed by a two-day design workshop. Preliminary plans were then presented to, and embraced by, community members at an open house. The resulting design was a circular gathering place built with local materials and expertise and designed with the town’s rich history in mind.

 

Residents Take Charge of Town’s Transformation

For four days in July, 2015, over 260 enthusiastic volunteers took part in constructing the gathering place.  Activities included art-making (mosaics, banners, and concrete staining), building (gabion walls and columns filled with local rocks and artifacts, outdoor lighting, and shade canvas panels), gardening (leveling and spreading soil, laying sod and planting), food preparation, and general merry-making.

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The amount of community contributions to the project were extraordinary, with more than 40 businesses and organizations offering services and materials for free or at significant discounts.

 

The Power of Social Capital At Work

A community-owned vision for the future of Milton-Freewater was developed to revitalize the ailing business district and surrounding area. Milton-Freewater citizens imagined and transformed a barren lot into a beautiful community asset demonstrating the power of a community coming together to implement real change in their own town. Significant effort was put into inviting the local Hispanic community to be part of the process, improving relationships between residents who may not have otherwise connected.

There is now a powerful opportunity to capitalize on this momentum and since locals were trained in Pomegranate Center’s collaborative method, there is local capacity to spearhead future improvements.


This entire project followed Pomegranate Center’s Approach based on these key principles:

  • create ownership at every stage of the process.
  • move swiftly while balancing inclusiveness with decisiveness and deliberation with action.
  • create partnerships to show how much is possible when different sectors collaborate.

This collaborative 2015 work in Milton-Freewater provides a strong precedent for community-based revitalization of small towns, allowing and inspiring community members to take charge of their destiny. This approach uniquely generates community ownership every step of the way.

This proven approach inspires and enables small communities seeking positive transformation.