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Appalachian Scene: It's All About People

by Lynda McDaniel

Photo Gallery
Denise Schlegel, executive director of VISION

Denise Schlegel sometimes compares herself to a juggler, but even P.T. Barnum's finest couldn't keep 20, 30, even 50 balls in the air at once. That's what it takes to rekindle a community, and as executive director of Schuylkill County's VISION, Schlegel is constantly in motion, guiding county leaders toward common goals.

"I call it nuclear fusion and fission at the same time," she says. "I'm usually juggling up to 25 projects with partners—businesses, schools, associations—any and every organized entity that can provide resources and expertise. You learn to juggle, and it's fantastic to watch so many people busy at once."

Schuylkill County's VISION, a community-based effort dedicated to improving the quality of life in this eastern-central Pennsylvania county, is only three years old, but already it has achieved some impressive results. Prior to 1997, for example, the county had averaged only 10 new jobs each year for 25 years. In 1998, the number of jobs created jumped to 800, and in 1999 to 1,385. More than 113 partnerships, 49 strategies, 1,000 people, thousands of volunteer hours, and $11,000 annually in in-kind donations have contributed to the process. In fact, the outpouring of help and support has been so remarkable that Schlegel uses an unusual term to describe it: "coopetition."

"That's when people cooperate and compete together. Everyone is onboard with the philosophy, and we work together for the betterment of the community," Schlegel explains. "That's the magic in this process. The community has been given permission to present new leadership at all levels, which in turn has empowered people to use their ideas and expertise to make things happen. The VISION office is simply a clearinghouse for their talents. If technical assistance, resources, or other partners are needed, I let the people know what we need—not only on my own, but also through my board, steering committee, and the VISION partners—and they let me know where we can find it."

Like so many other communities where coal, textiles, and farming once dominated, Schuylkill County needed to head in new directions. But where? And how? The first clue came from an unexpected source. An effort to erect a Vietnam War memorial had languished for decades in the hearts of county veterans. When representatives of the county newspaper, the Pottsville Republican, offered to help, skepticism gradually turned to hope as a series of articles and events raised $120,000. The day before Mother's Day in 1997, the memorial was unveiled before a crowd of 3,000 citizens, including once-disenfranchised veterans proudly wearing dress uniforms.

That experience sparked something greater, a celebration of and reconciliation with the past. People began thinking, if this community effort could ignite such feelings, what else is possible?

"The people needed a framework to think of a better world and permission to dream it," says Jim Kevlin, editor of the Pottsville Republican and a key player in both the Vietnam memorial and the VISION projects. "They wanted Schuylkill County to be a place where their children could stay and raise their grandchildren, but there was a real sense of hopelessness here."

Networking led the community to Henry Luke, a consultant from Jacksonville, Florida, who has developed a process he calls "VISION." More than 40 communities across the country have implemented his process to establish strategic plans with clearly defined goals. Schuylkill leaders, who adopted Luke's process and incorporated VISION into their organization's name, worked through focus groups, citizen summits, and steering committees to establish six key areas of focus: economic development, education, infrastructure, quality of life, government, and private-sector leadership. They defined four key benchmarks to measure overall progress—job creation, increased earnings, improved education, and a lowering of the poverty rate. With consensus on the direction they should take, they began to move forward.

Every Project Interlinked

To keep the effort's momentum going, Schlegel begins her days early, often with meetings in her office overlooking Pottsville, the county seat. On this morning, Darlene Robbins, executive director of the four-county Manufacturers Association of Mid-Eastern Pennsylvania, has joined Schlegel and Mark Scarbinsky, director of the County of Schuylkill Office of Economic Development. Officially, they each represent one of the six key areas, but every project is interlinked. Manufacturing needs better-educated workers, which encourages economic development, which requires cooperation from schools and government, and so on.

"Because we lacked the skill level needed to compete in the labor market, we have worked through the VISION process to complete some phenomenal education programs," Robbins says. "For example, the Schuylkill Community Education Council, which is a coalition of all of our post-secondary-training schools, four-year colleges, and regional colleges, has put together articulated agreements to provide specialized education for employers with special needs. Everyone—superintendents and [representatives of] industry, economic development, and government—came together to produce these educational programs, and Denise was there from day one to provide support."

Another example, Highridge Business Park along the Interstate 81 corridor, represents a collective effort between government, infrastructure, and economic development partners. Together they attracted Lowe's Companies, which built a 1.2-million-square-foot regional distribution center that brought 600 new jobs and provides about $600,000 in real estate taxes annually. Other successes include a recently passed $10 million bond obligation, with $3.6 million for economic development projects, and a Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) designation that provides tax breaks for companies that locate on underused properties in Schuylkill and Carbon Counties.

"Over the years the county had become reactive," Scarbinsky says. "Now, thanks to VISION, we're able to stand back and be more proactive. The KOZ program, for example, required us to go through a very competitive application process under a tight deadline. Denise and her assistant made it reality. I know we wouldn't be as far along without Denise. She's played the role of catalyst to develop all these coalitions."

At midlife, Schlegel, who has been on the job since May 1997, can look back on her life and see what led her to this place at this time. She grew up in the Philadelphia area in a hard-working, single-parent family, and credits her mother with instilling in her a message she recalls every day: Everyone counts. She began practicing that philosophy early. At age 15, she was already working with the Easter Seals in Delaware; she later served as a director at the Easter Seals in Wilmington and at the Pennsylvania Association for People with Mental Retardation, and then as CEO of the Pennsylvania Hospice Network.

"Most of my career has been within the fields of health and human services. I worked with people with very severe disabilities, and they taught me that you can do almost anything once you make up your mind to," she says. "They've taught me a tremendous amount of courage, creative thinking, and motivation. They gave me what I needed to be able to take a community and say, "You have everything you need to get to the future. You just have to go ahead and do it.'"

Schlegel now lives on a third-generation family farm with her husband, Lanier, and two children, Andrew, age 17, and Rebecca, age 14. To ease the pressure of her 50-hour workweek (down from the 60-to-70-hour weeks during VISION's formative years), she tends a patchwork of herb gardens and goes fly-fishing.

Most days, Schlegel takes a working lunch, often at one of several new cafes, coffee shops, and restaurants that reflect the efforts of the Pottsville Area Development Corporation, a VISION partner. Today, Kevlin joins her at the Greystone, a popular restaurant in what was formerly the old Park Hotel. The Pottsville Republican carries regular updates on and news about VISION projects, and last year ran a popular year-long series entitled "Defying Out-Migration," which profiled young adults who had moved back to Schuylkill County.

"The paper has provided information and accountability for VISION," Schlegel says. "They never hesitated to be a part of our community development, though they maintained an impartial stance. I don't think we would have functioned as well without that piece in place."

Expanding Leadership

The VISION process has fostered new and expanded leadership within all ages and demographics. The Healthy Community Strategic Alliance, which is made up of 84 health- and human-service pro-viders, schools, and state and local governments, focuses on developing solutions to health issues in the county. The youngest activists, members of a countywide youth group called INSIGHT (Inspiring New Standards Involving Goals Helping Teens), work in the high schools to get other students involved.

"When we talk with the people in this community, explain what really needs to be done, and allow them to take the leadership role, we bring new leaders to the table every day," Schlegel says. "That's exciting, because it's not by any one organization or person. It's owned by the community as a whole, and it's amazing what they can accomplish."

Even naysayers are important to the process. Legitimate concerns are welcomed and, whenever possible, integrated into the master plan. The Schuylkill Conservancy, for example, spoke up about preserving green spaces, and the county responded with a new parks and recreation commission to address these needs.

"That was a wake-up call for us. We said, 'You're right. We need to find a balance.' An open process is so important," Schlegel adds.

Not all objections are as easily dealt with, but again, Schlegel's early training keeps her pushing forward. According to Kevlin, her high energy level has made a difference. "When you are involved in this kind of process, there are going to be obstacles," he says. "You have to be willing to cope with opposition—even anger and resistance. Denise has that resilience. If she gets pushed back, she bounces back and tries to go at it from another direction."

A framed motto in Schlegel's office reads "From Vision . . . to Reality." She admits that the first phase of VISION may have been easier than the second phase will be, but the partners are encouraged by early results. Several key benchmarks have been surpassed: Instead of 12 strategic alliances, the partners formed 113, and the goal for new jobs in 1999 was exceeded by 85. Phase two is now beginning, and the public has recently reviewed a revised VISION document that includes 13 new priorities. "We wanted them to let us know if we'd forgotten anything," Schlegel adds. VISION partners are now considering the action steps they'll take toward these new priorities.

Schlegel's afternoons are usually spent answering a stack of telephone messages or attending more meetings. She drives up Mahantongo Street for a meeting at the Yuengling Mansion, once home to the family of America's oldest brewery, Yuengling Brewery (which will soon open a second plant in the county). The 1913 mansion now houses the Schuylkill County Council for the Arts, one of the partners involved in VISION's quality-of-life projects. Schuylkill County boasts more than 40 arts groups, including its own symphony, youth orchestra, art guilds, dance troupes, and theater companies.

"Rather than competing, they are finding that they can work together to help each other. That provides a quality of life that means a lot when we're selling the county to a future employer," Schlegel adds.

Back at the office again, the sun is setting as Schlegel answers more phone messages and sorts through her mail. Several requests for help mean more phone calls, more balls to juggle. She sits back and sighs, then points at three framed photo-etchings of an Appalachian family. They are her sister's work from years ago, and they have hung in every one of Schlegel's offices as a reminder.

"This is what it's all about," she says, looking at the children's eager faces. "People. It's all about the people."

Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia.