BUCKSPORT – Val Shaffner’s spent a lot of time at a keyboard recently. The retired legal assistant was hard at work typing the transcripts to hundreds of interviews conducted with Bucksport residents over the past year.
The interviews were conducted by Heart & Soul, a nonprofit group which is trying to find out what Bucksport residents value about their town by speaking to as many of them as possible.
Typing up the interviews was a lot of work, but Shaffner found it worthwhile.
“It was a rewarding experience because I got to hear people’s stories, and they were talking about things that mattered most to them,” she said. “We know people all our lives and sometimes we never get to ask questions like that.”
Heart & Soul volunteers spent much of 2016 and 2017 conducting interviews with residents from many demographic groups, both in downtown Bucksport and in the rural areas “out back.”
Volunteers asked residents to talk about what they enjoy about Bucksport, what they feel concerned about, and what their hopes and ideas are for the future.
Heart & Soul collected stories from over 350 people, and now the group is working on its next stage: condensing residents’ comments into summary statements about certain themes, such as “small town feel” and “community spirit.”
The group has already had summary statement sessions on themes such as the environment, recreation, health and the local economy. Last Thursday, Shaffner read through a small pile of comments related to town infrastructure, highlighting any recurring words she found.
Infrastructure served as an umbrella term for comments related to safety, town government, transportation and accessibility.
“It’s a nice, safe place to grow up in,” read one comment related to safety.
“[The] Town manager seems like she’s really helped a lot with the direction that it [the town’s] going in and I’m impressed,” said one comment related to town government.
Shaffner wasn’t alone in her efforts. About two dozen other people were working with her in the Edward K. Arey Community Center. The group was split into three sections: one worked on infrastructure, another on vibrant downtown and a third on education.
The infrastructure group found that residents valued safety, pedestrian accessibility, government transparency and planning for the future.
Meanwhile, the vibrant downtown group found that residents valued festivals, spots for people to socialize and a happening Main Street.
Finally, the education group found that residents valued small class sizes, the robust high school graduation rate and helpful teachers who could act on their ideas and meet the individual needs of students.
From those values, the groups drafted a few summary statements, such as “we value an inclusive, future-thinking education system that builds relationships, community and growth,” and “we treasure places for gathering…because they draw Bucksport citizens and out-of-towners as well as multiple generations interacting for economic development and sense of community.”
Heart & Soul volunteers will now come up with revised draft statements and share them with Bucksport residents for their approval within the next few months.
Meanwhile, the volunteers will hold similar draft sessions for sorting comments related to residents’ concerns, hopes and ideas for the future.
If all of those statements are approved by residents, Heart & Soul volunteers will present them to the Town Council.
“These statements will be used by the Town Council and by community folks as we make decisions about where we want our town to go,” said Nancy Minott, the coordinator for Heart & Soul.
For an example, Minott said some school districts decide to cut teachers from their payroll for economic reasons.
“Bucksport hopefully will look at these statements and see that people in Bucksport value the small classrooms and the accessibility of teachers,” she said.
The Town Council agrees that the project is a worthy endeavor. At their last meeting, councilors heaped praise upon the group and voted to spend $8,000 to help see it through to the end. That brings the total amount of town funding for the group to $28,000.
Earlier, the town had invested more money in the group because it was supposed to be Economic Development Director Rich Rotella’s primary responsibility. But when Rotella became busy leading other economic development efforts, Minott was appointed as the group’s part-time coordinator, and the expected budget dropped considerably.
The group is largely fueled by the over 12,000 volunteer hours of work poured into it. The volunteers will have to put in a lot more work if they’re to finish the project by the expected deadline of March 2018.
“It’s hard work,” Minott said. “But if anyone can get it done it’s our group.”