Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from “Ten Years of Best Ideas from America in Bloom Towns and Cities,” edited by Evelyn Alemanni. To order a copy of the book, visit www.americainbloom.org.
America in Bloom is a lifelong learning program for communities. As an AIB judge, I have seen first-hand how cities benefit year after year just by being part of the America in Bloom experience, whether they win a big prize or not. As with ongoing professional training – which we all know is critical to our success – towns and cities must be ever vigilant to new trends, new opportunities and new information in order to provide the quality of life and economic opportunities expected by their citizens. So how does this lifelong learning program for communities work? Here are the eight steps.
1. The Dream. So often we think that really good things can’t happen. But they can. Everyone in a community can rally behind the idea of beautifying their streets, commercial zones and residential areas. First, community members must decide they want to work together to realize their dream. America in Bloom provides a framework to help make it happen. Deciding to compete in AIB gets a community excited, proud and working together for a common cause.
2. The Application. The town applies to be part of the program. Sometimes it is difficult to find funds for the application fee. It is often best to engage businesses, civic organizations or private community foundations to help with this seed money assuring them that the community will rally. For the application, it is necessary to pull together general information about your town. Much of this information can be found on the municipal website. However, this is a perfect time to contact your town’s leadership and get them engaged in the process.
3. The Community Profile. Whether our communities are large or small, there are so many good things happening. Rarely are all these good things assembled into one document. Rarely are they known by all the citizens in the community. Getting ready for the AIB judges requires communities to assemble a community profile of all the creative, innovative and compelling programs that make their community unique and great. Cities generally don’t do this otherwise. In at least one community, this little book was so impressive that they printed a number of copies and sold it as a fundraiser for the America in Bloom program the next year.
4. The Judges’ Visit. A unique and important aspect of AIB is that two judges personally visit each city in the competition. These judges are volunteers whose only agenda is to assist the communities they visit. Many recommendations, idea exchanges and thoughtful discussions happen during these visits. This is what sets America in Bloom apart from other programs – the one-on-one consultation, coaching and mentoring. This is an extraordinary opportunity for communities to receive helpful advice that is much cheaper and often more useful than a consultant’s visit. And each year a community enters the contest, different judges visit with new ideas and insight.
5. The Judges’ Report. AIB judges use a carefully considered and well-developed tool for evaluating your community. This metric of how your community did in each of the AIB criteria provides a useful measurement. Few consultants have such a metric. In addition, AIB judges provide written evaluations of what they saw and experienced. For each community, the judges are obligated to provide useful and practical recommendations for improving or enhancing the towns and cities they visit. There is not an expectation that all these recommendations be followed. They are a palette of options to consider.
6. The AIB Education Symposium. As judges, we have found that there are many interesting and effective solutions to the challenging issues our communities face. The annual AIB Symposium provides an educational format that brings in nationally recognized speakers who address these challenging issues and offer solutions. And, just as important, the Symposium offers community leaders an opportunity to learn from the judges and from each other.
7. The AIB Awards. Held at the same time as the Education Symposium are the Awards Programs. We judges are probably more stressed than any of our cities at the time of the AIB Awards Ceremony. We want our cities, our towns to win! There are many different awards. First is the prize for the population category. This is the town or city that has accumulated the highest number of points in their population category over all criteria. Then there is a prize for each of the AIB criteria for the town that is the best overall. Then there is the bloom rating. Each town and city is given a bloom rating from 1 to 5 based on its overall accumulated points.
In addition, two new awards have been added. The Community Champion award is given each year to someone who has been nominated from their community and is seen as the AIB program’s overall exemplary leader. The YouTube video award is given to the community that presents the best YouTube video that year. Each of these is a big target and important award. Each provides incentives to join the AIB program each year to earn a new award. After you have won your population category, each of the AIB Criteria awards, and received an AIB five bloom rating, only then might you want to step out of the program for a year – or maybe not! Another opportunity awaits after a community wins its population category: it has the option to enter the international competition with Communities in Bloom.
8. Getting Ready for Next Year. Not everyone can take home the awards, but everyone wins. Because AIB provides a framework for community improvement and offers expert advice from judges who have traveled across America collecting best ideas, each AIB community benefits. You have now developed an organization where citizens work together to improve the quality of life and economic well-being of your community. You go home a winner. And you have so much material in place that competing the next year will be much easier.
I hear from cities that they do not feel they are ready to enter the AIB contest. If you have the dream and can put together an enthusiastic can-do committee, I encourage you to go for it. You can start with what you have – no need to create a huge project to impress the judges. Then plan on using this framework to keep your community in a process of lifelong learning, improving and growing.
The author is an AIB judge and board member.