One man's mission to revitalize small-town America

Ten years ago, things weren’t looking so good in Biddeford, Maine. Growth was stagnant, particularly because of a controversial municipal waste incinerator – also the town’s largest taxpayer – that occupied some eight acres on the downtown riverfront. There were also infrastructure improvement needs, competing downtown interests, and an image problem.

“The city did not need a short-term, band-aid solution list or lackluster plan,” says Daniel Stevenson, who previously served as Biddeford’s economic development director.

Community leaders decided to partner with the Orton Family Foundation, a nonprofit based in Vermont whose aim is to help towns and small cities become healthier and more economically vibrant. With some 35 neighborhood meetings and the participation of hundreds of residents, Biddeford opted to buy out the waste incinerator and move forward with other plans that ultimately created a wave of development and revitalization.

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The partnership with the foundation was a “game changer,” says Mr. Stevenson, who made his comments in an email interview. “The City is better off today with over $100 million in new private-sector mixed use investments and millions in downtown public infrastructure improvements including the RiverWalk….”

The experience he describes is one among hundreds of similar stories told by communities across the United States. And while the fine details of the stories differ, the common thread is the role of the Orton Family Foundation and its Community Heart & Soul model. Shepherding this process for communities is David Leckey, executive director of the foundation.

“There is a palpable hunger I’m seeing and feeling in small towns to do something together, to do something positive about where they live and with each other,” says Mr. Leckey, who himself grew up in Van Buren, Ohio, which had a population of 328 as of the 2010 Census. “The large majority of people in small towns are good folks wanting to do the right things.”

The challenges of many small towns in the US have been well documented, in some cases being nothing less than a fight for survival. Leckey commonly hears that the need for affordable housing, broadband internet, day care, and economic development, as well as the toll of the opioid crisis, are among the key struggles facing small communities. But he sees something deeper.

“Too many towns have sort of lost a sense of pride and purpose in those challenges; they have lost too much connection with each other as neighbors, or maybe they never had it,” he says. “Maybe they have forgotten the resiliency and resources that are still within their own hands – or as we say, in the hearts and hands of the people who live there.”

THREE GUIDES

The Community Heart & Soul model is guided by three principles, which the foundation describes as involving everyone, focusing on what matters, and playing the long game. It is carried out over four phases, from laying groundwork to making decisions and taking action.

“Involving everybody either rebuilds, strengthens, or discovers relationships that are within the community,” Leckey says. The process gives participants “a path to really engage with all the different types of folks who live and work in the community.”

Sixty-six towns in 14 states have completed or are currently engaged in implementation of the model, Leckey says.

The foundation was founded by Lyman Orton, whose parents in 1946 opened the first restored general store in the country, The Vermont Country Store – which has since become a major mail-order and online retailer. Mr. Orton remains chairman of the foundation’s board and provides funding to cover the nonprofit’s operating expenses – approximately $2.5 million annually.

In a recent interview near the foundation’s headquarters in Shelburne, Vt., Leckey reflected on how he found his way to the nonprofit. He had served as president of a manufacturing company and was looking for a next step that would enable him to effect change. In addition, the work of the foundation resembled his role in the 1980s as one of the first executive directors of what today is called the Southwest Initiative Foundation. In this job in Minnesota, he helped diversify economies in 18 counties.

“Being from a small town myself, loving it, and spending a lot of years working in small-town and rural development, [the Orton Family Foundation] seemed like a good fit,” Leckey says.

He refers to the potential of small-town America, which he and the rest of the foundation strive to realize.

“In this changing environment, we know more about what’s going on across the world than sometimes on our own streets,” he says. “We are looking for ways to reconnect that, [and] I just love connecting people. I love it when they mutually discover why they are so passionate about where they live.”

Leckey says that some of the biggest changes his team notices when the model is implemented have to do with positive action as well as pride and a sense of direction. The team also routinely sees “excitement about the relationships that have been built across the community” and an outpouring of volunteers ready to roll up their sleeves.

‘A DIFFERENT WAY OF DOING BUSINESS’

Kirsten Sackett served as the director of planning and building for Cortez, Colo., when it participated in Community Heart & Soul from 2012 to 2014. At the time, Ms. Sackett says, the city had limited resources for planning and tended to take a reactionary approach. Also, community leaders lamented low levels of public participation.

“We were poor, the school system left much to be desired, as did the health system, as it was always difficult to recruit and retain qualified teachers and health care professionals,” she says in an email interview. “There was also a desire to find a way to keep youth in the community, or at least provide opportunities for them to come back after they finished up college.”

Working with the foundation, she says, gave Cortez “a different way of doing business.”

“It brought together community members in meaningful ways to create understanding as they began sharing stories and talking about real issues and real solutions for the community,” she says.

The process resulted in, among other things, the creation of a beautification plan, a youth-adult collaboration, and a frequent reliance on the model to confront present-day challenges and opportunities.

She applauds Leckey’s dedication to this work.

“David Leckey believes in Heart & Soul. And he is a leader in transformation,” she says. “He showed us that he cared, and that he wanted to support the H&S communities in whatever way would be most helpful.”

Stevenson, who worked in Biddeford, also has praise for Leckey.

“David is socially responsible in his thought process, [and] that is reflected in his problem solving and communication with others,” he says. “David is thoughtful, responsible, balanced and respected. He is honest and approachable. And with his easygoingness and sense of humor, [he is] an absolute pleasure to be around.”

Leckey is quick to offer a reminder about the importance of community. “You don’t live in an economy; you live in a community,” he says. “Build your community first.”

• For more, visit orton.org.

OTHER GROUPS THAT SUPPORT COMMUNITIES

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects below are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

El Pozo de Vida fights against human trafficking through prevention and intervention and works for the restoration of children, families, and communities. Take action: Financially support a community center in Mexico City that helps sex workers.

Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen is committed to providing hot nutritious meals in the San Francisco Bay Area. Take action: Be a volunteer at this group’s community garden.

Globe Aware has a mission that includes working with children in slums and other disadvantaged youths. Take action: Donate money to build a community center in Romania for the Roma.

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Ramsgate ‘can not be ready’ for Brexit ferries

Port of RamsgateImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Seaborne’s contract at Ramsgate was one of three awarded to ease “severe congestion” at Dover, in the case of a no-deal Brexit

The Port of Ramsgate “can not be ready” for extra ferry services in the event of a no-deal Brexit, according to the councillor for the harbour area.

Seaborne Freight has been given a £13.8m contract to run a freight service between Ramsgate and Ostend in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

However, Conservative councillor Beverly Martin says the harbour can not be ready by Brexit on 29 March.

The government said facilities will be open “as soon as practicable”.

In a statement the Department for Transport said that “works are underway”.

Ramsgate has not had a regular ferry service since 2013.

Seaborne’s contract was one of three awarded to ease “severe congestion” at Dover, in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

The contingency plans allow for almost 4,000 more lorries a week to come and go from other ports, including Plymouth, Poole, and Portsmouth.

In total the contracts are worth £103m.

“From local knowledge, there is terrific concern that we [Ramsgate Port] can not possibly by ready. There isn’t the width or the breadth of the berths that is needed to carry large ships,” the councillor said.

“I don’t see how, with the state of the harbour and the port and the number of repairs that are needed that it could be ready.”

No emails

Ms Martin also said there had been no contact with the council about opening the harbour for larger freight ships.

“We didn’t have any notification of any this at our council meeting on 6 December. Why not? This is my ward. I have not had a single email from anybody.”

“If someone can show me how the due diligence was carried out, if someone can show me evidence on paper I shall feel a lot more comfortable,” she told the BBC’s Broadcasting House.

The Department for Transport said it had been in dialogue with Thanet County Council, which owns the port, for a couple years, and dismissed allegations that local residents had not been consulted as “complete nonsense”.

Seaborne’s deal to run freight services from Ramsgate has been criticised as the company has never run a ferry service and does not own any ships.

Last week the company was ridiculed for using terms and conditions on its website apparently intended for a takeaway food firm.

Juul: The rise of a $38bn e-cigarette phenomenon

A woman vapes a JuulImage copyright Reuters
Image caption Juul has experienced explosive growth – but will it continue?

Juul has all the qualities of a standard Silicon Valley success – fat profit margins, explosive growth, and even the cultural cachet to make its name a verb.

But the three-year-old start-up is not a simple technology company: it sells addictive e-cigarettes.

Its popularity among teens has provoked a backlash from authorities, and the announcement last month that it would join forces with Altria, which makes Marlboro cigarettes, has only ramped up the controversy.

So how did the firm grow to be worth more than $38bn (£30bn)?

How did the firm start?

Juul shares an origin story with many other Silicon Valley firms.

Founders Adam Bowen, 43, and James Monsees, 38, met in the early 2000s while in graduate school at Stanford University, where they were studying product design.

Smokers themselves, they went looking for a way to make cigarettes less carcinogenic and foul-smelling, and more socially acceptable.

Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption Co-founders Adam Bowen (L) and James Monsees (R) are now worth billions, according to Forbes

They set up their company Pax Labs in 2007 and spent about a decade working on vape products, before launching Juul in 2015.

The device, often likened to an unusually long flash drive, ignites liquids inserted via a pod, which come in flavours such as tobacco, mint and mango and can deliver a rush of nicotine roughly equivalent to a pack of cigarettes.

How big is Juul?

Pax Labs spun out Juul as an independent company in 2017, and since then the firm’s growth has been astonishing.

In 2018 alone, Juul expanded from about 225 employees to roughly 1,500, as sales more than tripled, according to analyst estimates.

The firm now claims some 70% of the US e-cigarette market, putting it on track to make what some analysts estimate will be well over $2bn in sales this year.

Juul also sells in seven countries outside the US, including the UK, Germany and France.

Altria’s deal to take a 35% stake in Juul, valued the firm at more than $38bn – more than double the $16bn valuation settled on during its most recent financing round in July.

The deal made Juul’s two co-founders billionaires, according to Forbes. It also put their three-year-old start-up on a par with the market cap of publicly listed companies such as Ford and Delta Airlines.

What’s unique about Juul?

The company doesn’t use the cancer-causing tobacco-burning process of traditional cigarettes.

But in the US, Juul pods deliver more nicotine than many rival e-cigarette brands – a design the firm says was intended to help switch smokers to their products.

That addictive quality is one reason why Juul has caught on.

Analysts also cite Juul’s flavours, discreet size and easy-to-use features, while critics blame early advertising campaigns for creating a “cool” factor that appealed to youth.

Investors focused on Juul’s financial prospects emphasise that its products are cheaper than cigarettes and have higher profit margins.

Why does this matter?

There are about 38 million adults who smoke cigarettes in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though that number is falling. The percentage of adult smokers dropped from almost 21% in 2005 to about 15.5% in 2016.

Just how much of that is due to e-cigarettes isn’t entirely clear.

But Juul – which has a stated mission of replacing traditional cigarettes – argues that its growth, alongside an accelerating decline in cigarette sales, is no coincidence.

About 25% to 45% of Juul’s sales may be replacing cigarette consumption, Piper Jaffray analysts estimate.

Image copyright AFP

Those trends pose enough of a threat for Altria to pay top dollar.

“Although we think Juul had [Altria] over a barrel, the best decision in our view was for [Altria] to bite the bullet [and] take a stake in Juul rather than face potential downside risk,” Bonnie Herzog, a managing director at Wells Fargo Securities wrote in a note to clients.

On a call with investors, Altria boss Howard Willard said he was confident that Juul was worth the price, noting that Altria had been monitoring the firm’s growth for some time.

“What continually happened was they exceeded our optimistic growth projections,” he said.

So will Juul’s growth continue?

The tie-up with Altria should help Juul get its products into more stores in the US and benefit from Altria’s lobbying operation.

The firm is also at the start of what is planned to be a major international expansion, after venturing abroad for the first time in 2018.

But there’s a lot of uncertainty ahead.

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionSweet tasting e-cigarettes “recruit” children

In the US, where authorities have pronounced e-cigarette use among teens an “epidemic”, Juul has announced steps to curb their use among younger buyers, including suspending sales of some of its popular flavours – such as mango, creme and cucumber – in stores.

The firm, which is under investigation by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), also shut down social media accounts and pledged $30m towards research as well as youth and parent education.

Abroad, the company faces different regulatory challenges – notably restrictions on nicotine levels in some markets, including the UK, which could make its pods less distinctive compared with rival e-cigarettes.

In the US, Juul sells pods that contain 5% nicotine by weight – higher than many of its competitors – whereas in places such as the EU it is restricted to 1.7%.

And while analysts say the firm’s profit margins on its products are well above traditional cigarettes, that’s at least in part because they are free of the kinds of taxes levied on traditional tobacco.

Morgan Stanley analyst Pamela Kaufman said at the moment Altria’s decision to invest looks strategic, albeit pricey, but there are risks due to the “potential for further FDA regulation”.

2018: The Year of the Worker

On Monday the Department of Labor announced its blockbuster jobs report with some 350,000 new jobs (including upward revisions from previous months) and continued strong wage gains for American workers. This was one of the most bullish jobs reports in recent memory. What a way to close out 2018 in what would now have to be labeled: the year of the American worker.  

These past twelve months have slammed Wall Street hard with half of 2017’s stock blockbuster gains surrendered. But for now, prosperity has rotated to Main Street USA where things have rarely been better than in 2018. 
    
Not in the last fifty years has the jobs market been as strong as it is today. 
 
Start with the fact that at 3.8%, the unemployment rate is matching its low-point of the last half-century. Almost half of the states in the union now have their lowest unemployment rates EVER recorded by the Labor Department. The labor market is so attractive for workers today that America is literally running out of qualified workers to fill all the jobs. The latest jobs report spotlights 7 million more job postings than workers available to fill them. That’s a bigger number than the entire population of Indiana. An all-time high 130 million Americans now have a job. We’ve averaged just about 200,000 new jobs a month under Trump.  
 
The black and Hispanic unemployment rates in November were lower in 2018 than they have been at any time since the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
 
This super-tight labor market gives workers more bargaining power with their employers. More and more Americans are demanding wage hikes from their employers and millions got those deserved raises. Pay gains in real terms this year are now estimated at 3% – one of the biggest increases in two decades. And don’t believe the Trump-haters who say that only the rich benefited. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the lowest paid Americans got the BIGGEST gains. Who needs the minimum wage, when we have a booming economy with a tide that lifts all boats. 
 
In 2018 some 4 million workers got pay bonuses from employers thanks to the Trump tax cut. Companies from Disney, to Walmart, to FedEx to Amazon handed out bonus checks and benefit boosts typically ranging from $1,000 to $3,000. Sorry, Nancy Pelosi, not too many workers think a check of $2,500 is “crumbs.” 
 
On top of these bonuses, my colleagues at the Heritage Foundation report that the typical middle-class family received more than a $2,000 tax cut this year thanks to the Trump tax plan. 
 
But more than any catalog of statistics, it may be the real-life news stories over the last year that help us appreciate the great American employment surge. CNBC reports that the hiring of ex-convicts is rising rapidly as employers search for ready and able workers. 
 
Or there is the story of truckers in the oil patch in Texas getting fifty and even $100,000 signing bonuses – as if they were superstar professional athletes. 
 
In other areas of the country, manufacturers are now advertising on billboards that prospective job applicants don’t have to pass a drug test to be considered. Even 94% of high school dropouts that want a job, have one. 
 
The bottom line is this. There has never been in most of our entire lifetimes a better time to be looking for a job than today. Unemployment is nonexistent in almost all parts of the country. Wages are rising for the first time in two decades. Americans are again the most productive and among the highest paid workers in the world. Anthony Scaramucci, a former Trump advisor, titles his new book: “The Blue Collar President. That is exactly what Trump is: the working man and woman’s CEO. 
 
Stephen Moore is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an economic consultant with FreedomWorks. His new book with Arthur Laffer is titled Trumponomics: Inside the America First Plan to Revive the Economy.

Ukrainian Orthodox Church Breaks Away From Russian Influence

ISTANBUL (AP) — An independent Ukrainian Orthodox church was created at a signing ceremony in Turkey on Saturday, formalizing a split with the Russian church it had been tied to since 1686.

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, signed the “Tomos” in Istanbul in front of clerics and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, forming the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

It forces Ukrainian clerics to pick sides between the Moscow-backed Ukrainian churches and the new church as fighting persists in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed rebels.

“The pious Ukrainian people have awaited this blessed day for seven entire centuries,” Bartholomew I said in his address.

The patriarch, considered “first among equals” in Orthodox Christianity, said Ukrainians could now enjoy “the sacred gift of emancipation, independence and self-governance, becoming free from every external reliance and intervention.”

Poroshenko thanked Bartholomew I “for the courage to make this historic decision” and said that “among the 15 stars of the Orthodox churches of the world a Ukrainian star has appeared,” referring to the updated number of churches that don’t answer to an external authority.

Last month, Ukrainian Orthodox leaders approved the creation of a new, unified church split from the Moscow Patriarchate and elected 39-year-old Metropolitan Epiphanius I to lead it.

Bartholomew I’s decision in October to grant the Ukrainian church “autocephaly,” or independence, infuriated Moscow and the Russian church severed ties with Istanbul, the center of the Orthodox world.

Criticism continued Saturday when a spokesman for the Russia-affiliated church in Ukraine, Vasily Anisimov, said, “We consider these actions to be anti-canonical … This action will not bring anything to Ukraine except trouble, separation and sin,” according to Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti.

Kiev has been pushing for a church free from Moscow’s influence, which intensified after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and amid the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Poroshenko, president since 2014, has pushed for the creation of the church as he campaigns for a March 31 election. Though the church is not formally part of the state, it is closely tied. Recent opinion polls suggest he is in second or third place in the race.

Poroshenko met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the ceremony.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.