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Islands in Somers Bay at Flathead Lake are skirted by fog in this photo from December 2010, as steam caused by low temperatures rises from the lake’s surface. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

KURT WILSON/Missoulian

POLSON - There they were, a "nice little community foundation, like so many," as board member Darlis Smith described it, handing out nice little grants to various groups.

A couple of thousand dollars here, a couple of thousand dollars there - the local food bank, for instance, or the local library.

"We felt good about what we were able to do," Smith says, "but we had to wonder - are we moving the needle? We were addressing pockets of need, but we were not pulling a group together toward a goal."

So the Greater Polson Community Foundation gathered representatives from the business community, schools, local Indian tribes and city government, among others, for a steering committee called "Envision Polson!"

The purpose, Smith says, was to come to "a shared vision for a more effective use of our time, money and resources."

And just like that, there they were - the Orton Family Foundation of Vermont, with an offer to "help small cities and towns describe, apply and uphold their heart and soul so that they can adapt to change while maintaining or enhancing the things they value most."

Now, just a few months later, Polson is one of 10 national finalists for four $100,000 "Heart and Soul Community Planning" grants the Orton Family Foundation will award in December.

Representatives of the Orton Foundation, including president and CEO Bill Roper, will arrive in Polson on Monday to take a closer look at the lakeside town and its grant application.

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"Whether cowboy or Indian, farmer or real estate agent, hospital worker or store owner, in Polson you will lead a good life, but not an easy one," the Greater Polson Community Foundation wrote in its 20-page application.

It said Polson's median household and family income is about $20,000 lower than the national median. Sixteen percent of its families and 20 percent of its individuals live below the poverty line.

"The reality of being a year-round resident of Polson is that you will likely struggle to survive economically while Polson's many seasonal visitors who own lakeside mansions, condos and RV and boat slips are among the nation's wealthiest people," the application went on.

Polson has hundreds of impassioned residents who dive into a multitude of community projects to help take care of a need, according to the application.

"But that's exactly the problem," it went on. "Participation has not been at the city government level and has been dominated by small groups of people on special interest topics. Planning decisions and actions have happened in spheres, not as a whole. And they've often left the majority unhappy with the results."

It quoted Polson City Manager Todd Crossett as to why community participation falls off when it comes to city planning.

"People don't get on a parked bus," Crossett said.

More people, the application said, will get on a bus that's headed somewhere - and even more are likely to climb aboard if you give them a say in where the bus is going.

"Our city planning has been the parked bus that nobody wanted to get on," the application said.

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So what is it the Orton Family Foundation can bring to the table?

Well, $100,000 over the next two years - a figure grant-winners must match with at least $25,000 of their own, with the balance to be made up with in-kind services and donations.

But it also comes with lots of help from the foundation on how to actively involve residents so their voices are heard in the planning process.

Smith said no taxpayer funds would be used to come up with the cash required from Polson's end if the community is chosen for the grant - the community foundation, and not the city, is the primary applicant.

John Barstow, communications director for the Orton Foundation, says the money is used to broaden the engagement of the public, beyond what most communities normally have, in the planning process.

"It's values-based planning, as opposed to using more traffic pattern figures and square footage numbers," Barstow says. "It's finding out what people care about in their community, and writing a comprehensive plan that reflects values that were identified and confirmed through a public process."

Barstow said a previous grant-winner, Golden, Colo., has found the process has helped it avoid roadblocks that can pop up when everything is considered on a case-by-case basis.

"One of the other outcomes in Golden, they tell us, is that people expect more transparency in their local government now," Barstow added.

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The Orton Family Foundation was founded in 1995 by Lyman Orton, the owner of a national mail order/web business called the Vermont Country Store, located in a town of 600 people, and Noel Fritzinger.

As their small town began to experience rapid changes during a building boom in the 1980s, Orton and Fritzinger found themselves ill-equipped to help manage the growth so that it both helped the community while protecting the small-town character that was luring people.

The foundation's goal is to give other communities the tools they need to either manage growth in a positive manner, or deal with declining populations and economic stress. It selects two communities (maximum population is 50,000) from New England and two from the Rocky Mountain West.

Polson will compete with another Montana town, Red Lodge, plus two in Colorado (North Fork Valley and Cortez) and one in Wyoming (Saratoga) for two grants to be awarded in the West.

The New England finalists are Eastport, Maine, Laconia, N.H., North Kingstown, R.I., Gardiner, Maine, and Essex, Vt.

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