Pivoting Community Engagement Strategies During the COVID-19 Crisis
Our projects are deeply rooted in community connection. Throughout the year you can find our staff flying around the country, hosting Build Sessions in church basements and community spaces. Most projects have a solid mix of digital engagement through surveys aimed at the community at large, in-person creative problem solving at Build Sessions, and behind the scenes data analysis. Not surprisingly, we’ve shifted our focus to online engagement (via zoom and meetingsphere) and digital outreach to create strategies for the communities we serve.
So here’s an update both on what we’ve been up to and how we’ve shifted our work to the digital sphere.
YORK COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA
Part of the fun of surveying a community is getting to know them through community events like festivals, farmer’s markets, and football games. With York, we had a plan in place to roll into town, survey people in person and host Build Sessions to get community input on the York County Economic Action Plan. When the pandemic left us house-bound, we pivoted, creating digital Build Sessions to engage community members in the creation of the Action Plan
In lieu of our typical in person meetings, we capitalized on zoom’s break out room capability matched with the Meetingsphere online collaboration platform, to host six 2-hour meetings with up to 60 (!!!) people, each with 3 smaller simultaneous conversations on topics ranging from the rural economy to equity and economic mobility. Our major takeaway? It’s totally possible to have a productive brainstorming session with several dozens of people on a zoom call, and in some ways it can be more effective and efficient than in-person, but you definitely need to work hard to keep conversation focused.
In addition to shifting our work online, we’ve pivoted our scope of work slightly to help the York community think through what economic recovery might look like, modeling the scope and size of the impacts on the local economy and providing a recovery framework, and sharing that information with the community through COVID-19 recovery webinars like this. We believe York is particularly well-positioned to lead a successful recovery - within just days of the Governor’s closure orders to protect public safety, the York County Economic Alliance (YCEA) quickly launched PreparedYork.com, a resource site to help business owners, employers, workers, and local communities navigate the pandemic at a local scale. The YCEA team is really serving their community well during this time of crisis, IMHO.
GREATER NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND
For the past few years, we have managed Connect Greater Newport, the economic development division of the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce in Rhode Island. As a community that relies so heavily on tourism, we know the impacts of shelter in place and travel restrictions will be severe. The region does also benefit from the large economic impacts of the defense and maritime industries so there are opportunities to be pursued. In collaboration with several private, public, and government representatives from the area, we helped create Restore Greater Newport, a task force dedicated to regaining economic prosperity and resiliency in the Greater Newport region. We are staffing this task force and working to define strategies for both the immediate and long-term needs of the region’s economy.
On the tactical level, we created the brand & website for Restore Greater Newport, which provides updates on community specific COVID-19 business resources, and host their bi-weekly meetings, prioritizing how to help businesses on an individual basis to minimize the impacts of COVID-19 on their community.
PITTSBURGH, PA: ALLEGHENY TOGETHER
We (and our partners at evolve EA) were hired by the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development to support the Allegheny Together program and work with select communities throughout the county. Each year we work with these communities to drill down on what they need in an individualized approach: is it marketing your main street? Attracting new and/or supporting local business? Planning a farmers market or community wide arts event? Whatever the need, we are there to help activate the community to problem solve and facilitate a plan for growth.
As in person meetings dissipated, we switched gears from long-term planning to immediate relief and impact mitigation, creating digital, community wide efforts to help small businesses stay afloat. That included an Open for Business map (shown above) of restaurants, retail, and more with details about how you can patronize their businesses. We also have curated webinars for business owners and municipalities throughout the county to learn about small business financing opportunities and many other topics surrounding main street recovery. Through our work, we even saw historical businesses charter new territory, leveraging online tools such as social media to engage their customer base.