Caffeinated Community Comeback: Small Ohio Town Discovers Power of Networking

Nelsonville residents network at FullBrooks Cafe

Just five years ago Nelsonville looked pretty sad. In this southern Ohio town of just over 5,000, crumbling sidewalks bordered empty storefronts. Only two stores were still doing business around the once-charming town square.
“But this place had an amazing history,” June Holley told us during a recent workshop of the UpliftAcademy held in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “The area around Nelsonville was the birthplace of the CIO.” But when coal mining left this Appalachian community in the late 1900s, so did the community's life.
Or so it seemed.
Then, in 2003, Miki Brooks opened FullBrooks Coffee Shop on the Square. Brooks thought she was satisfying a desire for good coffee, but it turned out she was quenching another, deeper thirst as well.
Within a few months, FullBrooks had become a conversation hub, a new town square in which folks – from the local community college to local foundations and local businesses – began to talk…and to dream. They realized the area was rich in artisans, from painters and weavers to woodworkers and potters.
June, an evangelist for the power of networks, explained that within five years, the empty buildings were full of shops selling the works of hundreds of local artisans. A new culinary school opened a “fabulous restaurant,” June, a self-described “foodie,” proclaimed.
“The coffee shop provided a missing public space where people could start cooking up stuff,” she explained.
And they cooked up all sorts of things. Among their ideas is Final Fridays, a weekly event offering entertainment in the refurbished “Opera House”, free food samples, and lots of specials at local shops.  Thousands of people — mostly from neighboring communities-- saunter around the square, visiting neighbors and enjoying local street musicians (often young people).
Everywhere is a “field of potential,” said June, which we generally cannot see. “We have to dream together to begin to see and believe.”
The goal, according to June, is creating “smart networks” – networks that are always learning. A primary quality of such a network is “listening,” she said, “to what's working and what could be better. There were amazing artisans opening shops,” for example, “but not enough customers,” she said. Individually, they couldn't afford a marketing budget; together, they could. So artisans joined together to use their contributions to leverage enough funding from a local foundation to create a stunning marketing brochure.
And the lessons from Nelsonville that June shared with us?
At first local officials didn't give much weight to the locals' vision. “How do we get traditional economic development people to appreciate the possibility here?” asked June. Their answer, in part, was to bring in outside experts to offer their stamp of approval. “This shifted the views of local development people,” she said.
Another lesson is that small collaborations can lead to big outcomes. She asked us to consider the “power of twosies” – just two individuals committing to take action can set off powerful ripples, she explained. “There are probably a thousand twosies happening right now.”
Third, radio is “really, really important,” she found. Most media are so negative, she lamented, but Nelsonville locals used their local radio stations to spread the word about the town's renewal and to draw people in.
“One outcome is a fabulous arts program for children,” Jane explained. She showed us a photo of a five year-old entrepreneur selling her works of art. “She comes from low-income family and says she's going to use the money for college,” Jane explained.
Finally, June stressed, “Messes are really important. This is not a linear process!” She noted that her own organization, Acenet, made its biggest breakthroughs because of messes. It's the embrace of our “messes” that allows us to experiment and make breakthroughs, she's convinced.
June opened her talk with a photo: a cross section of plant roots showing the intricate lacework of fungi working with the plant's roots to reach deep into the soil and more effectively feed the plants. That was the image of networks she wanted us to hold in minds as we listened to her story of Nelsonville's reweaving.
An expressive speaker in a natty jean jacket, June describes herself as a network weaver, who helps others learn the art. All of us are network weavers, she believes, but we can become better ones, asking ourselves and each other: To whom do you relate? From whom do you get new ideas?
For twenty years executive director of the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, June now helps communities around the globe form Smart Networks by training and supporting Network Weavers. “Networks are the relationships that enable us to find and spread new ideas,” she told us.
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