Grassroots Development: How a rising tide lifts all boats.  

For some, the terms community development and economic development have two distinct definitions and applications. For others, they are interchangeable and together, they represent a holistic approach to improving our community across a broad spectrum of outcomes. A traditional definition of community development was first published in a 1975 edition of the Community Development Journal wherein authors John Darby and Geoffrey Morris define community development as “…an educational approach which would raise levels of local awareness and increase the confidence and ability of community groups to identify and tackle their problems.” A common definition of economic development is “the process by which the economic well-being and quality of life of a region, local community, or an individual are improved according to targeted goals and objectives.” Although there are subtle differences in the definitions, the intent of both disciplines is to make our communities better places to live, work, and play. In the modern era of development, the activities, interests, and outcomes of community and economic development practitioners are intrinsically linked.

In broad terms, community development aims to improve the quality of life in a community, while economic development focuses on developing infrastructure and sites to create and retain jobs. Historically, a common belief in the world of development is that quality of life measures are second only to infrastructure, sites, and jobs. If you have infrastructure and sites, you’ll have jobs and if you have jobs, you’ll have a higher quality of life. During the Third Industrial Revolution, our community experienced an embarrassment of riches in terms of economic growth and career opportunities, making the foregoing statement mostly true. However, in recent years the paradigm has shifted. In fact, it’s completely inverted. In the post-COVID era where project inquiries include requests for information about community amenities alongside those of utility capacities, it is fair to say that quality of life measures have become the proverbial chicken and economic outcomes are the egg. The old adage of “a rising tide lifts all boats” has never been more relevant. Today, it is the quality of our communities that represents the tide more so than the strength of our economy. 

Improving our quality of life requires collaborative efforts that enhance community networks and the physical environment in which we exist. These efforts include initiatives that improve our health and safety, build upon our natural resources and public spaces, and increase educational and recreational opportunities. Typically, these initiatives originate at the local level – in the micro-communities within the larger community – and as each element improves, the momentum spills over into neighboring initiatives. Throughout the county, there are groups of dedicated, organized citizens leading grassroots efforts to enhance their community and nowhere is this more evident than in Harmar and the greater West Side.  

“The Big 10” is a collective of citizen-led community improvement projects generating positive outcomes throughout the West Side of Marietta. These projects include accessibility and pedestrian safety improvements along Lancaster, Virginia, and Franklin Streets; the adaptive reuse of the Historic Harmar Bridge into a multi-use trail; a butterfly garden and native pollinator habitat; and efforts to preserve the West Side’s rich history. Among the leaders of these initiatives is Harmar’s own Geoff Schenkel, Co-Founder of REsolve Design Studios and current 4th Ward Marietta City Councilman. Geoff has dedicated his life to empowering members of his community through art, education, advocacy, and resourcefulness. With Geoff’s encouragement and guidance, the citizens of the West Side are demonstrating a “self-starters resourcefulness” and a commitment to preparedness that has empowered several projects to compete for – and secure – public and private funding that has advanced each respective mission. 

Everything we do is directed towards making improvements in public spaces,” said Schenkel. “These are places that affect our quality of life, and each improvement has grown from the observation skills of community members. As a group, we map where the problems exist, write a description of the problem we’re facing, and then speak clearly to others about the issues we have located.” Projects like the pollinator habitat on Fort Street and the Bridge Company’s butterfly garden have beautified the neighborhood, while simultaneously benefiting the birds, bees, and butterflies that also call Marietta home. Dig deeper and you see that outcomes from conservation projects like these improve water quality by filtering stormwater before it enters the rivers. In turn, agencies like the Washington County Health Department and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources have stepped up to support various Big 10 projects.     

Also behind the growing success of the Big 10 initiatives is the West Side Community Group, which for the last 6 years, has met on the last Sunday of each month. According to Schenkel, the Big 10 has shown a constant and consistent effort to start small, slowly growing more inclusive with their stakeholder engagement which routinely includes local business leaders, nonprofit directors, and elected officials. Schenkel went on to explain that what “started as arguments about trees versus grass on our river banks, whose fault it was that grass wasn’t mowed frequently enough, and frustration over trees blocking our beautiful river views, has transformed into the addition of thousands of flowers that ended the arguments and finger-pointing.”

These are the types of collaborative endeavors that bring a community together. Success from one initiative feeds into the success of the next and before long, the power of a butterfly garden can be found in a compelling narrative for transforming the Harmar Bridge into an iconic regional destination for outdoor recreation and history lovers alike. “Success breeds success” is a common phrase that illustrates the power of small wins and how as momentum grows, so too does the magnitude of the victories. Although opinions differ on how we get there, there’s no denying that grassroots endeavors are critical to the overall quality of life in our communities. 

We are at a pivotal point in human history as abundant opportunity collides with ample funding and an ever-changing global economy. Marietta’s intrinsic charm and irreplicable history give us a competitive advantage over other rural communities. But it’s the quality of our people that gives us a competitive edge. As the West Side and the Big 10 continue to raise the tide, all boats will rise throughout Marietta and Washington County. 

About the Author

Jesse Roush is the Executive Director for the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority (SeOPA), which is Washington County’s lead economic development agency. With a diverse background in operations and project management within the private and public sectors, Roush guides SeOPA and its partners through a broad range of economic and community development projects.