Managing Community Engagement in Hickory, NC

Author: Charles Archer, Account Director, Freese and Nichols

Every year, City Planners across North Carolina ask their citizens to reinvest in their communities by approving bond referendums for projects that will spur economic growth or enhance infrastructure to accommodate rapid population increases. This article spotlights the various tactics that the City of Hickory used to generate support for a bond election to fund projects that would attract millennials and revitalize the community.

In the midst of economic decline, Hickory took a unique approach by engaging and accepting feedback from the community at the beginning of the process. By giving Hickory citizens a platform to be heard – coupled with educational and technology programs about the bond referendum and its related projects – the City demonstrated how public consensus can be leveraged when working to prioritize bond projects.

One challenge many city planners face is achieving public consensus on the prioritization of bond or capital projects, given the varied interests, backgrounds and demographics across communities. In 2010, Freese and Nichols worked with the City of Hickory to identify community priorities with the goal of prioritizing capital projects to be financed by two bond referendums totaling $40 million.

The economic context for this project provided an additional challenge. In 2010, Hickory was in economic decline. The City had lost 45,407 jobs and was rapidly losing residents in the key age group of 20-44. Between 2000 and 2010, the City lost approximately 25 percent of its residents in this age range. City leaders knew they had to make Hickory competitive with other midsize southeast cities by attracting private job creators and young adults. With input from community organizations, business leaders and residents, the City developed a plan to create a waterfront development with a riverwalk, streetscape improvements, and an urban greenway connecting Lenoir-Rhyne University with downtown. The plan also called for new investments in the central business district, a new manufacturing park and the creation of gateways.

A primary strategy that helped Hickory gain support for these projects, and the bond referendum to fund them, was engaging the community at the beginning of the process. In July 2012, an initiative called Inspiring Spaces facilitated over 65 public meetings, attracting over 500 residents, which was one of the highest participation rates for a City project. These briefings were among the first opportunities for residents to share their opinions and visions for the community. In addition, a February 2013 initiative called Innovate Catawba provided a forum for more than 250 local business leaders to add their perspective.

While accepting feedback from the community was an important step, Hickory won community consensus because it implemented citizen input. It did this by creating an advisory committee, a commission and educational programs.

First, an advisory committee of 15 residents developed an actionable plan based on the community input, which was presented to City Council in May 2014.

Next, after the bond referendum was approved, a 42-member Bond Implementation Commission was created to keep citizens directly involved in the process by offering their insight on the projects and funding. More than 200 online applications were submitted for positions on the commission, and citizens were selected based on demographics to ensure diverse representation.

During the bond referendum process, citizens who were not directly involved in creation of the plan found another way to advocate for their position. A group called Boost Hickory formed to help the City educate voters about the bond, the projects and how they would benefit the City.

Lastly, education was another key factor in helping Hickory gain public support for the bond referendum and its related projects. Then-City Manager Mick Berry developed an online citizens briefing that spelled out the City’s situation, summarized the proposed projects and explained how the bonding process works in simple terms. The video received 1,726 views. Boost Hickory was also an essential partner with helping to get accurate information out to the public and the media.

Through this process, the City staff also learned that transparency is important for creating a public consensus. Using the financial tool Socrata, the City is enabling citizens to see exactly how the bond money is being spent and implemented.

Now, three years into the bond program, public engagement remains strong. The bond commission meetings consistently have 90 percent attendance from commission members, and others in the community regularly attend as well.

A key factor for Hickory’s successful bond proposal was to engage the community early in the process. In 2014, the bond passed with 60 percent of the vote. In addition, the engagement process has had a positive impact on community dialogue. It has opened the door for community involvement in future projects, created greater transparency for government meetings and financing, and has improved communication between the City and its citizens.

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