Parting Thoughts with Mayor Maggard: Community Building

Aug 24, 2023News

Parting Thoughts with City of Whitehall Mayor Kim Maggard:
A Monthly Blog highlighting reflections, takeaways and future plans!

With bittersweet emotions, I have officially entered the final six months of my tenure as Whitehall’s Mayor. As I reflect on my three terms, I’ve planned a monthly blog to help celebrate our collective accomplishments over the last 12 years. I look forward to spotlighting our progress, sharing lessons learned and, most importantly, thanking the countless individuals and organizations who have helped me transform my passion for Whitehall and public service into meaningful change for our community.

First, it is very important to me that we take a step back and recognize Whitehall’s growth over the last decade. Whitehall’s history is marked by ups and downs, but we’ve hit a new stride and have become a model of how to maximize a community’s potential while creating opportunities for all—regardless of race, income level or other social status.

We are a City that creates our own opportunities, but these opportunities would not be possible without Whitehall’s greatest asset: its people and the strength of our community. 

As I frequently say, and truly believe, our community has more by chance than most other communities have on purpose. We have a prime location, and access to world class amenities, but all this would be for not if our community lacked heart. So as I stepped into my role as Mayor nearly 12 years ago, I knew that I wanted to foster this sense of community by rethinking and reinvigorating how the City was supporting meaningful engagement, through parks, recreation, community events and programming.  In our annual reports and other collateral, we like to promote the fact that over the last 5 years, the City has invested over $10 million into parks infrastructure. This includes but is not limited to the renovation of an underutilized activity center into what is now a state of the art 20,000 square foot Whitehall Community Park YMCA, opening a splash pad at John Bishop Park, installing new playground equipment at all existing parks and opening of two new parks.

But when we oversimplify this investment – summarizing the park renovations into high-level dollar amounts—sometimes I think we miss the point. An investment of this size in five years’ time, in a community with an annual operating budget of less than $32 million, is no small feat (especially when considering this budget also supports police, fire, EMS and public services). Financing the investment took creativity, the support of the Whitehall voters (who passed an income tax increase in part for a community center), and the tireless efforts of a very talented team. I would be remiss if at this point, I didn’t specifically thank Parks and Recreation Director Shannon Sorrell for leading these efforts, and City Administrator Zach Woodruff for helping me leverage our relationships with community partners to help bring these projects to fruition. Director Sorrell not only built out these facilities, she also started from scratch personnel-wise and has since built out a team capable of hosting programs year-round that engage residents of all ages, abilities and interests. In fact, since she started as our Parks and Recreation Director, the City has been awarded 10 Ohio Parks and Recreation Awards of Excellence from the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association.

But I know you didn’t keep reading this far into this blog for me to have me only brag about my team. Here are my more pragmatic take-aways from my last 12 years of building up community engagement, spaces and programming:

As a leader you don’t have to know everything about everything. Find experts who are willing and able to make positive change happen, then give them the resources (and autonomy) to make it happen. None of our progress to date would have been possible had I worked alone, or had any one of our team members worked in a vacuum.

Trust your community to take care of your new improvements. I once had a (former) director tell me that they didn’t want to take down a fence around a playground because the playground might get tagged. Pardon me – but what? If something gets tagged, clean it up. If something gets broken, fix it.  Take the literal and figurative fences down around your City-owned assets and invite everyone in your community to enjoy.

Community centers are not one-size-fits all. Whitehall’s demographic make-up is diverse, and the needs of our youth and families may not match those of more affluent suburbs. So when it came time to plan for the Whitehall Community Park YMCA, we didn’t presume to know what our community wanted and needed in a community center. In place of a typical swim-and-gym model, we landed on a programmatic center, with after school programs, teaching kitchens and an indoor soccer field. Others noticed our thoughtfulness – evidenced by our Parks & Recreation Department being awarded the Ohio Governor’s Award in 2021 for the design and programming of the YMCA.

Every community event doesn’t have to be everything to everyone. Some events are small and specific—like a fitness class or an outdoor concert featuring a niche local artist—while others cater to a broader audience. This sentiment applies to parks too – not every park has to be everything to everyone. Which leads me to my next takeaway…

Don’t be afraid to rethink how physical space is being used and organized. When planning our reinvestments into the parks, we made our main central park our sports park, our smaller parks for more passive recreation, and our largest park our nature park. Giving each park an identity has helped us to stay focused. One notable reimagination of space involved removing softball diamonds from Whitehall Community Park, and replacing them with 6 acres of wildflowers and miles of walking paths. While perhaps an unpopular decision for the few teams that used this park, the wildflowers are now one of our most loved walking and jogging spots.

Use your signature events to invite outsiders to visit your community. Launched in 2013, the Whitehall Food Truck & Fun Fest started as a small local event with about 15 food trucks. Ten years later, the Fest has blossomed into a highly anticipated regional event, attracting over 25,000 people to Whitehall each summer. While I continue to support the festival because it’s great for community-building, it is also our key means by which we welcome new visitors from across the region to see and experience Whitehall’s progress first-hand.

Finally, instead of only inviting the community to your table, meet them at theirs. Leverage the ideas brought to you by passionate community members and organizations to make sure your events and programs reflect your diversity. It’s no secret that youth violence is on the rise in the region. So let’s try something new and provide productive alternatives to violence with the community leaders youth already look up to and in ways that youth want to be.

engaged. While a first-time event for Whitehall, we were approached by a passionate leader and coach in the community who wanted to host a summer-time youth basketball league in our parks with the goal of providing teens an alternative to trouble. Dubbed “Thursday Night Thrillers,” I can’t say enough about how proud I am of our Parks and Recreation team, Police Division and Real Situations for working together to bring an authentic, meaningful, safe, and fun, program to youth in our community. Read more about this program here.

I could go on, but I know I need to leave some take aways (and thank you’s) for my future blogs. I look forward to focusing next month on takeaways from Housing & Development in the City of Whitehall.

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