Many of our NH towns are works in progress. Where once they were thriving centers of commerce including factories or mills, now they’re reinventing themselves as the heart and soul of our local communities. They’re places where people can gather with one another, shop, recreate or enjoy a meal. To make this change happen our fellow community members are coming together to bring vibrancy back to their towns.
Bristol New Hampshire is one such town, on its way toward becoming more vibrant than ever. Last year Extension’s Community & Economic Development team worked with Bristol to pilot a new nature economy program: Downtowns & Trails. Over the course of 9 months, Extension staff worked with a dedicated committee and community volunteers to understand how its bike path could be better connected to the downtown. Through several spatial assessments of main street and the trail combined with community conducted surveys and interviews of residents and visitors, some opportunities for both long and short term action were indentified.
We sat down with Brittany Overton, Director of Bristol's Minot-Sleeper Library and Downtowns & Trails program volunteer to learn how regular citizens are starting to make change happen in their towns. Brittany participated in two ways, both as a volunteer completing 1:1 interviews with Key Informants from the Newfound area community as part of the Volunteer Survey Program and as Director of the Library which coordinated and hosted the community forum.
Why do you love Bristol? What makes it special?
I love Bristol for two main things, one, the sense of community. We have amazing people who live in Bristol, they’re willing to help their neighbors, they’re wiling to volunteer an incredible amount of time.
The second is the proximity to the White Mountains and outdoor resources. People say Newfound lake is our greatest asset, but for me it’s more than that and includes nearby trails like Sugarloaf, Slim Baker Lodge and Cardigan Mountain. Proximity to these activities is what drew us here and what keeps us here.
How did you get involved in the downtown revitilization project?
Nik, the town administrator, hung a poster in the library asking for volunteers to conduct surveys. I love this type of thing, I love surveys, community conversations, listening to what other people have to say. I don’t think as a society we listen enough.
Often we think we know how things are, whether it’s personal relationships or our community, but if we spend more time listening to individuals and asking questions like the ones asked during the survey, we start to find that there are other issues that people aren’t talking about.
Often, it’s not just one person that has found that issue. It’s more prevalent than we may think. I always love to participate and talk to people and listen to them, then see how the similarities can come together and create new projects to work on.
What did you notice about your fellow community members during this process?
At the Volunteer Survey Training with UNH Extension there was a huge crowd there, over 20 of us. That’s phenomenal! After putting up a few posters, people from all different aspects of the community showed up!
People were excited! This was a really great chance for our community members to talk to people they know about things they hadn’t discussed before. It was also a good opportunity for peole in town to hear from visitors and others on the street about why they liked Bristol and how the town can be improved to keep them coming back. It was an exciting opportunity for the volunteers. I know it was for me.
How do you see the changes discussed and being implemented affecting your town?
I’ve found this in a lot of places I’ve lived, often the everyday citizen thinks, oh they’ve got it, the decision making groups, select board, city council, those in charge are all set. I’ve got ideas but who am I?
The great thing about Bristol and a lot of other towns in NH is that we have deliberative sessions and town meetings that are a great opportunity for people to have a say in how they want their community to be. I think that this downtown revitalization project encouraged the volunteers, who are everyday citizens, to feel that they could play a role in that bigger picture of what our community looks like.
The town is working on cleaning up certain areas and making visitors and community members more aware of our assets to make the town a more attractive place. I think the town will continue to move in a direction of growth and will continue to work to attract new residents and visitors. It will continue to become more vibrant.
In 5-10 years, I believe Bristol will have an even greater sense of community than it does now because of some of these projects. People will need to connect and work together to grow the community.
How was the process?
The process was a great one. UNH Extension’s Community and Economic Development team was fantastic to work with. The training, the questions, their willingness to answer our questions throughout the process via email or phone was really great.
The community forum was, I think, the most important part. At the library we saw more than just the volunteers coming out and I think that’s really important. To get people to buy in to some of these future projects, they need to feel connected right from the start and the forum did a really good job of making them feel that way.
Where is Bristol Today?
An Update from Community and Econonmic Development's Shannon Rogers
Over 30 community members attended the community forum Brittany mentioned above. We shared results from surveys and brainstormed next steps with Bristol's community members.
The group shared what they value about the downtown and its trails:
- Historical resources in the town (especially the downtown)
- The seasonal balance in visitor opportunities and proximity to natural assets such as mountains, rivers, and trails
- The growing number of events that bring folks to town (including the NH Marathon, the upcoming Bicentennial, and a Navy Seals event).
- The library as a resource and a way to get maps and other information about town
In discussing some of the town’s challenges, communication issues were front and center. Discussion points included:
- Finding ways to better communicate the town’s many assets including a lack of sufficient signage and wayfinding as well as uncoordinated marketing
- Concern over safety for the bike path and other pedestrians
After the assets and opportunities were laid out, we formed a strong list of potential actions and participants were able to vote for their favorites. When the votes were tallied, two actions appeared as clear victors:
- Creating a committee to address town communication and marketing
- Establish an effort to help business owners and others become better ambassadors for the town
This ambassadors program will likely take the form of a future Extension supported training. The action committee has already formed and met once with some great enthusiasm for implementing some these ideas. The town has already put together a plan for improved signage as well as a request for marketing support. Extension will continue to support the action committee in Bristol as its volunteers work toward implementing some of the recommendations from our new Downtowns & Trails program.
Community Makes Change Happen
Change in towns like Bristol wouldn't be possible without wonderful residents like Brittany who volunteer their time to make their town a better place to live. Thank you to Brittany and all the wonderful volunteers in NH working to bring vibrancy back to our downtowns! To read more about Bristol and how the community is enacting change, check out Desination Bristol: A Transformed Downtown Surrounded by Natural Assets Attracts Visitors and Residents Alike
The Downtowns & Trails program is now being offered to communities throughout the State. Contact Shannon Rogers, State Specialist of Nature Based Economic Development, to learn more.