Establishing a Community Vision

By Beacon Staff

Polson is searching for a brighter and more prosperous future and a $100,000 grant from the Orton Family Foundation could be the key.

The town of 5,000 on the shore of Flathead Lake was named a finalist last month for the Heart and Soul Planning Initiative grant which will be awarded to four towns across the county; two in the Rocky Mountain West and two in New England.

Foundation spokesperson John Barstow said the program was first established three years ago to help small towns and cities establish a vision for the future, with the hope of including all voices and opinions within a community.

“We believe towns that understand who they are, will be, overtime, more socially and economically viable,” Barstow said. “What we really aim for is a town … that really knows itself; this is who we are, this is what we want to be and here’s how we’re going to get there.”

To help foster the vision, the grant provides $100,000 to hire a part-time project or community organizer. The town will also have to raise a minimum grant of $25,000.

Penny Jarecki, president of the Greater Polson Community Foundation, said the grant is the right fit for their community and could help overcome major economic issues that plague the area. According to the town’s grant application, 16 percent of families and 20 percent of individuals live below the poverty line in Polson and the average income is $20,000 lower than the national median.

“We have vacant spots on our Main Street because it’s hard to make a living here,” Jarecki said. “We felt that Polson hadn’t transitioned well from being a timber town, because even if we have this beauty, we’ve got problems.”

To tackle these issues head on, the GPCF established Envision Polson!, a committee of area leaders to help define short and long term goals. Eight action committees were formed under Envision Polson!, each addressing issues such as the economy, youth involvement, health, recreation and infrastructure.

Leading the way with the grant application was Darlis Smith, a marketing manager for Black Mountain Software. Smith said the Orton Family Foundation grant could help “move the needle” toward a brighter future in Polson.

“To be named a finalist was an honor,” Smith said, “but I think we’ve got a great chance of getting this because we have a great story to tell here. I think we’re on a path that’s meant to be.”

Barstow said storytelling and including the entire community are important aspects his group considers when it selects the finalist and eventually grant winners. This is the second time the foundation is awarding the grant and Polson had to compete with 30 others across the country. The finalists also include Red Lodge, as well as towns in Colorado, Wyoming, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. When selecting the winners, Barstow said the groups look for situations that can provide insight to other communities and Polson’s place within the Flathead Indian Reservation was a unique characteristic that wasn’t overlooked.

He also said in the end, it’s the community that has to find its own path forward.

“In the past community development has been expert driven, but what we want people to realize is they are the experts,” he said. “They are the ones who know this place best.”

Currently officials from the Orton Family Foundation are visiting each town and the final grant winners will be announced in early December.