How One Conversation Turned into $800K

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By: Delayne Weston

In small towns and rural counties, with part time staff and limited resources, it can be tough to coordinate community and economic development initiatives. Mercer County, Illinois, was no exception. Communities across the county were pursuing goals and projects independently and had not considered cooperating to leverage resources and share costs.

But that began to change when a local community foundation, the Looser Flake Charitable Foundation, approached Russell Medley, Extension Community and Economic Development Educator, and the Mercer Foundation for Health, a local organization focused on providing health care in Mercer County. The Looser Flake Charitable Foundation was charged with identifying Mercer County's economic development priorities, and wanted Russell to help them engage local community leaders and facilitate a conversation about countywide needs. With that conversation, Russell Medley, and University of Illinois Extension, began working with the Foundation to help develop a coordinated, county-wide economic development plan for Mercer County.

Russell and the Mercer County Foundation for Health convened meetings with community leaders from across Mercer County, its communities, and large employers. These community conversations led to the development of a countywide strategic plan that identified actions and strategies that the Looser Flake Charitable Foundation and other organizations could fund. Russell helped plan and facilitate these sessions, developed grant proposals, supported development of the Mercer County Strategic Plan, and hired project coordinators to help with event planning and communication outreach. Those who joined the planning effort developed a steering committee and selected a planning process to follow – the Orton Family Foundation's Community Heart & Soul planning process. Soon, they launched a countywide campaign to keep residents and the Looser Flake Charitable Foundation informed about future plans.

After two years of collaboration, these efforts paid off. The Looser Flake Charitable Foundation funded Mercer County: Better Together (MCBT) as a collaborative, county wide community and economic development organization. Since its development, MCBT's Executive Director, Kyle McEwen, reports that there have been many breakthroughs: $150,000 invested in parks and recreation, $100,000 in technology for Mercer County and Sherrard School Districts, and the first successful Community Heart & Soul planning process on a countywide scale. This success led to the Orton Family Foundation, consulting with McEwen, to replicate the MCBT model in other small, rural communities across the country.

At the close of 2018, more than $875,000 has been raised to support these county wide efforts. Illinois Extension is proud to have been part of this process in Mercer County. In Mercer County and across the state, Extension helps communities and counties be better together.

Find your local Extension Educator to learn more about what Extension can do for you.

Delayne Weston is working as an intern in Illinois Extension's state Community & Economic Development Education office on the UIUC campus. She will be authoring some interesting blogs in upcoming weeks about the work CED Educators are doing across the state of Illinois. She is currently working on a Communication Major with two minors, one in business and one in public relations at UIUC. She is also President of the Communication Leaders on campus.