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122111 flathead from polson

Flathead Lake and the Mission Mountains as seen from Polson.

POLSON - Polson is taking its dreams to the bank.

The Orton Family Foundation on Monday announced it was awarding the Greater Polson Community Foundation a two-year, $100,000 grant.

Officially called a Heart & Soul Community Planning Grant, the money is used to "change the way small cities and towns engage their citizens and plan for the future."

"Everyone is excited," said Darlis Smith of Polson, a community foundation board member. "In two years, I think you'll see a lot of changes, and have even more reasons why living here is great."

About half of the money will likely be used to hire staff for the program, Smith said.

"The Orton Family has no preconceived notions about how the money is spent and we don't, either, but they encourage communities that win grants to hire a great coordinator," Smith said. "We get to work with Orton to figure it all out. They've done it before, and they're experts in the process."

Founded in 1995 by Lyman Orton and Noel Fritzinger, the Orton Family Foundation came into being after a building boom in the 1980s threatened to adversely affect the character of the small Vermont town where they lived.

Orton - owner of a national mail order/web business called the Vermont Country Store - and Fritzinger said they felt ill-equipped to help manage the growth so that it both benefited the community while still protecting the small-town character that was luring people.

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The foundation's goals are to either give other communities the tools they need to manage growth in a positive way, or to deal with declining populations and economic stress.

Polson was the smallest of five towns in the Rocky Mountain and New England regions, all with populations under 20,000, which were selected Monday from a list of 10 finalists that had also included Red Lodge.

Others winning $100,000 grants were Gardiner, Maine; Essex and Essex Junction, Vt.; Cortez, Colo.; and Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford, Colo., in a combined application called North Fork Valley.

All "exhibited an acute awareness of their issues and demonstrated the desire to shake up the status quo, reinvent their planning processes and chart a course that will place them on a path to vital economic growth," the Orton Foundation said in a news release. "Each town has begun to map their community networks, and volunteers are ready to create new opportunities and enhance the place they call home."

The Greater Polson Community Foundation was founded in 2007 and while pleased, Smith said, with the grants it has been able to parcel out - to the local library or food pantry, for instance - felt it was a piecemeal approach that wasn't, in her words, "moving the needle."

Under the direction of its president, Penny Jarecki, the community foundation gathered representatives from the business community, schools, local Indian tribes and city government, among others, to come to "a shared vision for a more effective use of our time, money and resources."

They called the steering committee "Envision Polson!" and not long afterward, it became aware of the Orton grants.

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In its application, the community foundation said Polson has plenty of impassioned residents who dive into various projects to help take care of specific needs.

"But that's exactly the problem," it said. "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."

The committee identified 20 distinct neighborhoods within Polson while going through the application process, Smith said, and the grant will help "engage them all in city planning."

One in five people in Polson live below the poverty line, the application also said, and the town's median household and family income is about $20,000 lower than the national median.

"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," it said in its 20-page application.

Envision Polson! has identified some priorities of some local people already, Smith said, through an online poll, including a desire for lakeside hiking and biking trails, and a need to clean up "blighted" areas of town.

"It's a preliminary outline," Smith said. "Under 300 people took the poll but it's still directional."

The grant, she said, will help them find ways to get many more voices heard, and residents involved, in the directions Polson takes.

"The goal is to get community members more engaged with one another," Smith added, "and to strengthen relationships within the community."

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