UI Extension Community and Economic Development: The Community Planning Process with Mercer County, Better Together
By Russell Medley
The University of Illinois Extension's Community and Economic Development team bring capacity-building resources to Illinois communities through their leadership, workforce, entrepreneurial, and community planning programs. This past spring, University of Illinois Extension Community and Economic Development collaborated to serve as a resource in the community-driven planning process for Mercer County. The MCBT (Mercer County Better Together) – a countywide economic development organization – kicked off a planning process that included residents of Mercer County and local leaders, and Extension partners. The goal was to bring in new opportunities and improve the lives of residents across the county, as well as foster widespread public support towards strengthening the local economy and quality of life.
Mercer County, with the town of Aledo as the county seat, is home to approximately 16,000 residents in rural, northwestern Illinois. There are twelve towns and villages in the county in which the majority of the population lives, as well as fifteen unincorporated communities across the county's 569 square miles of land.
The process began with a request from the Community Foundation of the Great River Bend (CFGRB), fund administrator for the Looser Flake Charitable Foundation. The Looser Flake Charitable Foundation funded through the estates of two Mercer County sisters, Roberta Looser and Dorothy Looser-Flake. Both sisters were lifelong teachers and committed to community and civic efforts in the county. With the bequest, the sisters set up a charitable foundation to focus on economic development and education initiatives in the county.
With no established economic development or community development organization within the county, the infrastructure to identify countywide community needs was missing in Mercer County. In September 2015, the Community Foundation of the Great River Bend approached University of Illinois Extension and the Mercer Foundation for Health about organizing a group of county leaders to discuss the possibility of a countywide planning process to identify needs and provide the input to the foundation needed when making project-funding decisions.
Community leaders from across the county were pitched the idea and enthusiastically signed on to the process. During the summer of 2016, a series of four community forums were held across the county to bring the idea to residents and provide the opportunity to residents to become involved. In August 2016, the group submitted a proposal to the foundation for an 18-month long planning process pioneered by Orton Family Foundation called Community Heart & Soul ®. The proposal was accepted and in November 2016, the process began with the hiring of a full time Project Coordinator, Kyle McEwen to manage the process.
Since that time, each of the 11 population centers in the county and the county itself have worked together to reach out to residents through community forums to identify what they love about their communities and what they would change. Community volunteers are actively involved in meeting facilitation, fundraising, marketing, data analysis, and collecting stories from residents about their history in Mercer County. The countywide community planning process is expected to be completed by February 2018 with a goal of launching a 501 c (3), nonprofit economic and community development organization to implement the county's vision, goals, and strategies that will be identified in this process.
Francesca Salinger, graduate student in Urban Planning at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, also had a key role with MCBT. This past academic year, she centered Mercer County as her capstone case study in community planning and economic development. An informational interview can be found at https://soundcloud.com/narrowrow/u-of-i-student-helps-mercer-county-with-rural-development
See a video release on UI Extension's role in the Community Planning Process in Mercer County here: https://youtu.be/znQ-GUAZt1U