Friday, August 08, 2008

First Impressions

“To sell real estate you’ve got to have curb appeal! Our towns need to be doing the same thing. They’ve only got one chance to make a first impression,” Leland Speed told me several years ago at one of our too infrequent lunches. Leland, having come from the real estate industry, fully understood the importance of making a great first impression upon anyone looking at your community, whether it was a tourist, retiree, professional or Fortune 500 company looking to locate a new plant.

Two years ago Mississippi State University (MSU) set up a Community Action Team, headed by Virgil Culver, to utilize the expertise and resources of MSU’s faculty and students in concert with local citizens to address the needs of the many MS communities. One of their main programs is First Impressions, a program designed to provide communities with an unbiased summary of its strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of a first-time visitor.

Virgil told me, “It is a program that ties together our roots in extension with MSU. Andy Lewis from Wisconsin first developed the idea and it is now being done in states like OH, KS, WV and others.”

First Impressions descends upon a town unannounced with six or eight people. After doing a thorough study, Virgil told me, “We give them a full report and do a community wide presentation. We hope to get some issues on the table and start to work cooperatively on some of them.

The Community Action Team has completed over 50 studies in the past two years and has another ten in the pipeline to do.

Do you know what the first impression is of new people to your town?


AbleWis said...

Jack, I talked briefly with you about the First Impressions program when you were speaking in Monroe, Wisconsin a while back. I kept it short as you barely had a voice! In your book (p. 104) you say...
“What are the first impressions of people who come into your town as visitors? What do they see when they enter town? Are there signs of vibrancy and health – or of decay and neglect? Are the residential areas that are most evident to outsiders kept clean and well tended? What type of image comes from the business district, he industrial parks and the main thoroughfare through your town?
Think of driving through other small communities. You get a certain sense of each community as you drive through, don’t you? The town’s storefronts and streets, its parks and houses, the landscaping and the land itself, all murmur a subtle message about the type of town it is. This message is magnified by personal encounters with residents in restaurants, stores, the chamber of commerce office or wherever you meet its people.”

The First Impressions program is actually a tool that can be used to capture these impressions. The program had humble beginnings and was first developed by myself and James Schneider (the Economic Development Coordinator in Grant County Wisconsin at the time). It has gone through several revisions and as Virgil mentions, is now being used by several states. In fact, it has been used by well over 1,000 communities in the U.S. and Canada. In the Extension tradition, this program has been shared freely. You can download the Wisconsin version of the program at:

For a list of other Extension systems and organizations that are using the program, just click on the link titled, "Adaptations of the Program".

Take Care!

Professor Andy Lewis
Center for Community & Economic Development
U.W. Extension

Anonymous said...

We just recently used the First Impressions program to do a community evaluation of LaCrosse, WI and Oshkosh, WI. These are the largest cities in WIsconsin (~60K) to have used this program, and, while we had to make some modifications to account for the size of the community and the distance, the program was a success. Both reports are found on my website (see below). One of the most interesting and valuable parts of the program was the way the media, public and local officials and leaders received the information and had local dialogue about the results. The local newspaper in Oshkosh picked up the story and posted it on their blog, which generated all sorts of comments from residents. The Mayor hosted a forum for local leaders and organizations to hear the results and begin to dialogue about how they could take some ownership of several of the recommendations. We presented the results to the public which was then taped and broadcast on the local cable channel for anyone to view. I think a key lesson learned is not to keep the results a secret, but to get them out there to generate interest, new ideas and excitement.
Catherine Neiswender
University of Wisconsin-Extension
Community Development Educator

BoomtownUSA said...

Great comments from WI where this whole program of First Impressions originated and has fortunately, spread around the country.

I well remember the talk in southern WI. The MC introduced me to the audience with a "we've got a surprise for you." The surprise was that I had lost my voice and had to deliver my talk in a whisper. It is the only time that has happened to me.

I was thrilled when I got a standing ovation at the end of the my talk, although I never figured out if it was because they were so glad that I was done or that they liked the talk.

Will Andresen said...

I've used the "First Impressions" exchange in a couple of communities where the ideas and enthusiasm generated from the process led to powerful community development outcomes. This afternoon, I'm visiting a nearby fair for a "Fair Impressions" exchange. Lots of adaptations to this program!

Will Andresen
Community Resource Development Educator
Iron County - UW Extension