Making Smart Growth Happen
Partnerships Support Community Visions in Finger Lakes Region
The Finger Lakes area of New York is home to many small communities with some of the most scenic landscapes, unique villages, popular tourist destinations and rich agricultural land in the country. Helping these communities in the region grow their economic competitiveness and develop an affordable and achievable vision for the future is a formidable task. But where there are successful partnerships; nothing is impossible.
Jim Yockel, CEO of the Greater Rochester Association of REALTORS® (GRAR), has become an expert at turning the improbable into the possible. He acknowledges that it’s a challenge serving an area nearly the size of Connecticut. But, he adds that success is possible thanks to supportive partnerships and community engagement, and with the help of NAR Smart Growth and Placemaking grants, GRAR has created collaborations, assisted several small communities throughout its service area and developed templates to help other communities in the future.
“We like to work in partnerships as much as we can and like to leverage those partnerships.” Yockel says. “As a result, we’ve been able to raise the level of interest and excitement in the future of these small communities.”
Yockel explains how creative partnerships and community engagements are helping communities with different needs find individual solutions and a common vision.
Smart Growth and Placemaking grants help make partnerships possible
In the Village of Lima, community leaders wanted to avoid sprawl and celebrate the area’s rich agricultural heritage. Lima is also a heavily traveled tourist corridor through the popular Finger Lakes region.
“The first goal for Lima was to build on the ag base, revitalize the village center and give young people a reason to stay by providing housing and jobs,” explains Yockel. “But leaders were also asking ‘how can we give travelers a reason to stop and see some of the unique historic aspects of Lima?’”
GRAR secured an NAR Smart Growth grant, partnered with the Community Design Center of Rochester and engaged Lima local officials. Together they held a two-and-a-half-day event where planning experts and community participants explored the area, evaluated opportunities and challenges and created a plan that increased walkability, improved access to the village center and enhanced existing buildings. Work is currently underway to revitalize a number of downtown storefronts and transform them into mixed-use buildings with retail, office and housing spaces. Phase Two involves prioritizing projects, achieving short-term action items and securing funding for long-term projects. Plans also include partnering with tourism and entertainment nonprofit organizations to help market the village to tourists.
The community of Penn Yan used a similarly styled event to address a different question: what can be done to attract a large employer to the area without negatively impacting tourism and agriculture? Using a similar process of partnerships, evaluation and strategic planning, officials developed a vision that involves improving housing availability, making better use of under-utilized land and enhancing community image. Officials are confident those actions will make it easier to market Penn Yan to a large employer.
In the Rochester suburb of Pittsford, GRAR joined in efforts to reclaim a neglected historic landmark. An NAR Placemaking Grant is helping to pay for a new sign explaining the history of the Erie Canal, helping make the park more meaningful for visitors. It’s hoped that future Placemaking grants may be used to address transportation issues, create parklets and enhance public markets.
Jim Yockel says that each community project and each collaboration not only creates a series of success stories, but enables GRAR to create a project template that other villages and towns can use to create their own visions and craft their individual strategic plans.
“Most smaller communities can’t afford a large, two-day event, but we’re able to create a template with affordable costs that is accessible to smaller communities,” Yockel explains. “Area communities can visit adjacent communities, see what’s been done and take those lessons back with them. The template gives communities achievable action steps.”
Teaching smart growth for sustainability
Another way of planning for the future is providing education in the present. GRAR utilized an NAR Smart Growth Grant to organize an educational symposium for area officials and REALTORS®. The day-long symposium not only educates participants about smart growth ideas and tips on how to enhance the area, but builds collaborative bridges. Yockel adds that in addition to creating partnerships, educating leaders now will help pave the way for future successes because local leaders will already be familiar with, and supportive of, smart growth principles.
“It’s fun to see the process and the partnerships,” Yockel says. “Of all the things we’ve done in the last five years, this is the most impactful. Ten years from now I hope we can see six to seven communities who’ve really realized a sustainable vision.”