At last week’s Soul of the Community meeting, as attendees settled into the college auditorium to hear more about how residents feel about life on the Grand Strand, Coastal Carolina University President David DeCenzo, a veteran of numerous community gatherings, opened with a lament of sorts.
“There have been so many times,” he said, “that we’ve energized a group, they left the room, and then nothing happened.”
Judging by the size of the group on Thursday and the questions that came out of the engaged audience, those presenting data from the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community survey accomplished the first part successfully enough. The energy and interest was built. Now comes the hard part.
Attendees heard in detail the strengths and weaknesses of Horry County when it comes to encouraging residents’ attachment to the area. In general, these attributes boiled down to quality of life. Residents tie themselves more firmly to a place that offers plenty of social options, natural and physical beauty and which is welcoming to others. Improving these attributes of a community, researchers found, will improve its perception among residents.
Americans are craving community these days, said Katherine Loflin, the lead content expert on the study. But creating that sense of kinship and identity can be frustratingly difficult. Building a sense of community often comes down to a purposeful and intentional process of working toward specific goals.
To that end, four smaller subcommittees of local notables met over the summer to generate targeted, low-cost ways to make a difference as soon as possible in some of our biggest areas for progress: Making people of all backgrounds feel more welcome, particularly young, talented leaders, and improving our physical aesthetics and social offerings. Among the ideas the groups generated were new mentoring programs for students and young professionals, more bike paths, a locals phone app, events specifically for local residents, and a renewed focus on both public transit and on attracting businesses that match the offerings of our local colleges.
All of these are fine ideas, and we hope that some come to fruition, but there’s a long road ahead. Most of our region’s elected officials did not attend Thursday’s meeting (many had a previous event scheduled in Greenville), and the cooperation of the county’s leaders will be a necessary ingredient in any recipe for change.
Some encouraging steps are already being taken. DeCenzo said that in October the university will be adding a new staff member dedicated mainly to community engagement. Jonathan Kresken, executive director of the Waccamaw Community Foundation, also said that his organization would be dedicating staff just to working on some of the challenges and opportunities identified in the community survey.
The Knight Foundation has been conducting its survey every year for the past three years. By this time next year, hopefully some of the ideas floated in the past few months will have moved along enough for the survey to show an improvement in our neighbors’ views of their home. The excitement fostered in the past few months can be a mighty force. Gather it together, concentrate its power, and aim it at specific objectives. Any of the ideas will do. Just make sure it doesn’t go to waste.