Volume XIV | Issue 2 | Fall 2014
The Siuslaw River Bridge leads into downtown Florence. Photo: John Wiley

It's all happening in Florence

Area residents take leadership lessons to heart to help revitalize the community

When a group of Florence friends heard there were students who didn’t have enough to eat on weekends, they went to the elementary school principal to see if there was any truth to the rumor. They were stunned to find out the extent of the problem. 

That was the genesis of the Backpacks for Kids program, where every Friday, bags of food are discreetly placed in student backpacks, providing them with enough food to eat healthfully all weekend. Today, the program serves 75 students in the Siuslaw area and 10 to 15 in Mapleton. 

when there is a need, the community steps up

For Becky Goehring, a Ford Community Fellow and nine-year resident of the area, it’s just business as usual for Florence. “I think there is a spirit of cooperation and collaboration here,” she says. “Take the backpack program — when there’s a need and people find out about it, the community steps up.”

The Florence area has been extensively involved with the Ford Institute Leadership Program, and has completed the entire series of trainings: Leadership Development (three cohorts), Effective Organizations and Community Collaborations. The aim of this in-depth training is to help communities achieve vitality by developing a broad base of skilled leaders, effective organizations and productive collaborations.

Florence-area residents seem to be taking those lessons to heart. In the last few years, several initiatives have taken root and flourished. Downtown merchants have launched an ambitious revitalization campaign that will make Florence more aesthetically appealing to the thousands of tourists who visit each year. Power of Florence Day, created by a student, gets bigger and better every year.  

The business of art

One of the most promising efforts is still in its infancy — the creation of an economic development strategy tied to the arts. Organizers used a technical assistance grant from The Ford Family Foundation to quantify the impact of art on the Florence economy. 

“Because of all the beauty here, we have a tremendous amount of creative types who live here,” says Harlen Springer, board president of the Florence Regional Arts Alliance. “We wanted to know what the economic impact was. Is it just the people drawn to live here, or does it mean something?

“It turns out it means something,” Springer says, referring to a nationwide Arts and Economic Prosperity study. “In 2011 in Eugene — the closest market in the study to us — $45 million was spent because of nonprofit art groups. In addition, that spending supported 1,700 jobs.

“We want this area to be a destination for the arts,” Springer adds. “Ashland is known for Shakespeare, Joseph for its sculptors. When people say Florence, we want them to think of the arts.”

The Florence Regional Arts Alliance (www.fraaoregon.org) was created a year ago, and has made great strides toward this goal. The group recently opened an arts center, which hosts artists-in-residence and classes for the public. The center is home to a variety of arts activities, including concerts, dance rehearsals and arts exhibits. 

The alliance also sponsors arts walks, arts-oriented community celebrations and is working on building the public arts inventory.

“For me, living in Florence has been a chance to appreciate the power that is in small communities,” Goehring says. “And when it can be channeled and people are brought together and work together, I know that amazing things can happen.” 

Ford Institute Alumni Celebrations:

Florence was one of the first communities to host a Ford Institute Alumni Celebration. Held last April, the event brought together everyone in the region who had participated in the Ford Institute Leadership Program. 

“It’s a way to reenergize the base of volunteers,” says Ford Community Fellow Becky Goehring. “We came together and celebrated everything we’ve accomplished over the last seven years.”

Participants looked at the past, but they also looked toward the future, and spent some time discussing next steps in their community efforts. Communities in other parts of the state will be hosting similar Ford Institute celebrations in the next few months.

The Florence meeting resulted in a dozen people volunteering to be a “go” team that would spearhead further work in the community. Their first decision was to make an application to the Ford Institute’s Pathways program

The Pathways program is a facilitated process for motivated and self-reliant communities. The process engages local innovators and empowers community leaders to plan to act on a significant community priority.

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