Now over a year and a half in the works, Unity Foundation of La Porte County and the La Porte County Convention and Visitors Bureau have unveiled a momentous effort in partnership with its local communities called Vibrant Communities of La Porte County. The action agenda is to be the first the county and its cities and towns have seen in over 30 years unifying local communities’ ideas, experiences, and unique input to create a kind of roadmap to a more prosperous and vibrant community.
The agenda was born because of a sister county’s efforts back in 2019. In Elkhart County, community organizations and consultants were in the midst of a similar plan: listening to and learning from its communities to put together an action plan on how to create more prosperous environments for everyone.
“Unity Foundation and the La Porte County Convention and Visitors Bureau decided early on that we were going to emulate what they were doing in Elkhart County,” said Maggi Spartz, President/CEO of Unity Foundation. “We loved the work the consultant group, Planning NEXT, which is based in Columbus, Ohio, was doing in Elkhart County and knew they would be a perfect fit for our own plan.”
A fundraiser by trade, Spartz, the board, and Jack Arnett, Executive Director of the La Porte County Convention and Visitors Bureau, who partnered with Unity Foundation on the plan, began fundraising to hire the consultants and begin work on Vibrant Communities. Companies and organizations like NIPSCO, Horizon Bank, Healthcare Foundation of La Porte, and more stepped up to be a part of the historic plan.
“We wanted people who had skin in the game,” Spartz said. “We didn’t just want it to be Unity Foundation. From the start this effort was supposed to be a grassroots community engagement effort—it’s not supposed to be from the top down. We had to ask ourselves, ‘How do we get people engaged with La Porte County?’”
Arnett agreed. Quality of life and place has been part of the La Porte County Convention and Visitors Bureau’s mission statement for years, focusing on what they can do to enhance its community.
“Anytime we can help to enhance quality of life and quality of place, there is then a domino effect,” Arnett said. “Folks want to come here, stay here, work here, and want to come back, and we do what we can to make sure that happens. So, it was an easy fit.”
“A lot of people look at the Convention and Visitors Bureau or the tourism industry and think of meetings in a conference room,” he said. “What they don’t understand is our real role is to have a place in the community where we positively affect the quality of life and place for our residents and the people who come to visit us.”
The community engagement effort was in full swing. Kyle May and Logan Stang from Planning NEXT guided the team of 25 people as they began the process of community outreach and interactions. At its core, the grassroots effort was about listening to the communities and learning about their needs, their wants, and their hopes, rather than speaking for them on issues many may not have ever experienced.
“This is the fundamental philosophy of community service. There are so many stories of organizations like the Peace Corps, for example, coming into communities and then leaving a wake of completely unfinished projects that people didn’t really care about because they came in imposing their norms or their ideas on people,” Spartz said. “I mean, when do you get the opportunity to really talk about your community?”
“One thing that really stood out to me about Planning NEXT’s strategy was their positive framework," she continued. "They came in and asked people to write a headline of what La Porte County will look like in five years, in ten years, in twenty years. That’s something I hadn’t seen before; it’s always framed ‘What’s wrong? What needs to be fixed?’ So, our goal was to get people to share their hopes for their community, and people did.”
Over almost a six-month process, Unity Foundation and its team reached almost 1,000 people in the La Porte County community, from the larger cities like La Porte and Michigan City to the smaller, rural communities like Hanna and Mill Creek. They reached people of all ages, genders, races, ethnicities, sexualities, socioeconomic statuses, and more, fulfilling their goal of being not only transparent but also inclusive of every background and experience.
“There were some groups that we really wanted to make sure that we heard from, so we held community engagement events with them,” Spartz said. “The homeless or near homeless, the Hispanic, Black, and LGBTQ+ communities, South County, ministers, students, environmental groups, libraries, and even Meals on Wheels clients who were homebound. We had rigorous online participation, too.”
“We reached out to La Porte County’s 22 communities, and they all had input, not only the geographics but also the demographics,” Arnett said. “We did a great job of pulling in all of this input.”
By the end of the six-month process of gathering data, ideas, thoughts, experiences, challenges, and hopes for the future, Unity Foundation, its partners, and Planning NEXT had put together an almost 500-page Action Agenda that included public input from the hundreds of participants that defined a unified set of goals and strategies to meet their ultimate vision. Housing studies were completed to look closely as to why developers weren’t building in the area. The team studied local food deserts, scrutinizing why certain areas didn’t have access to healthy food and grocery stores like other communities. Resources were put together for businesses and movements. A total of 17 strategies were introduced to meet these goals.
The Action Agenda focuses on three major themes that reflect the needs of La Porte County and recommend where and how to direct future plans: People, Prosperity, and Place. The People Chapter of the Action Agenda focuses on how welcoming and inspiring La Porte County communities are, stressing the investments in humanitarian efforts, education, health, and more. Based on conversations with community members, strategies included everything from diversifying housing options and inspiring greater civic involvement and engagement.
The Prosperity Chapter focused on how to continue to grow a resilient economy through encouraging entrepreneurship, access to resources, innovative and exciting job opportunities, and more. From modernizing and maintaining infrastructure to stimulating local business growth and entrepreneurship, Unity Foundation was careful to learn more about the already existing programs and turn the spotlight on them.
“A lot of great entrepreneurial and business resources exist in La Porte County, but not many people know about them or where to start looking,” Spartz said. “It wasn’t about bringing in new resources, it was about uplifting the ones readily available right here in our community.”
The last theme, Place, focused on La Porte County’s unique history and environments, emphasizing the importance of protecting its unique character and diverse communities through growth and revitalization. Strategies like reinvesting in existing neighborhoods, rather than investing in new ones, and preserving the county’s natural amenities defined this chapter.
All in all, the 17 strategies introduced in the Action Agenda created a total of 67 specific action items that now lead Unity Foundation and its team into the Implementation Phase. Continuing its focus on listening and learning, Unity Foundation will identify potential roles in implementing its action items and monitor this grassroots movement—vowing to fund and support its local nonprofits, movements, and immediate actions as the entire community works together to make the vision a reality in the coming years.
“People know what resources they need and what they want for their community,” Spartz said. “If we can just help them find these great existing resources, then we are doing our job. In the beginning of processes like this, money isn’t everything. Knowledge is everything.”
For more information about Unity Foundation of La Porte County and La Porte County Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Vibrant Communities, please visit their website at https://vibrantlpcounty.com/.