What's the big idea?

What's the big idea?

In November, 2,222 imaginary light bulbs flicked on.

Each one represented an idea provided by a Champaign County citizen during the 10 "Big. Small. All. Champaign County." dialogues, via e-mail, phone or Web site. This week, organizers hope to get every single one of those ideas – verbatim – on to their Web site, www.bigsmallall.cc.

"We are working to get them up on the weekend," said Frank DiNovo, who works for the Champaign Regional Planning Commission. "That's our top priority."

What viewers will see are ideas expressing concerns and opinions about diverse county issues, from "free wireless for all" to "less testing in schools" to "merging Champaign and Urbana to make better use of limited resources," as three suggestions state.

However diverse the specific ideas, many touched upon common ground. In the first organization of ideas, completed by ACP Visioning & Planning, senior planner Jennifer Lindbom and other staff members identified areas of significant interest and looked at the proportion of people who attended the meetings: their genders, races, ages and incomes, as well as their satisfaction with the process.

"The ideas (community members) shared were fantastic," Lindbom said. "We're hopeful that that energy and interest level remain high."

Types of ideas

In an "initial stab" at categorizing the ideas, DiNovo said, ACP found 243 suggestions relating to education, 238 about social issues like health care and low-income needs and 214 ideas about prosperity or economic development.

Other categories, each counting more than 100 ideas, included community character, a term that encompasses issues like downtown revitalization and how neighborhoods should look and feel; development patterns, or how we use land; arts, culture, activities and entertainment; natural resources; leadership and government; and delivery of services, which includes utilities, public safety and other publicly used resources.

Each category will be discussed by a subcommittee during the next several months. By September's public assembly, the groups should have evaluated each idea and submitted action plans for various issues. The subcommittees are open to public participation but require participants to commit time each month to the project.

Transportation proved so big – 299 ideas – it was broken up for discussion purposes into public, automotive and alternative.

"Maybe that reflects the number of transportation-related concerns recently," DiNovo said.

Even within topics, suggestions overlap. A teen center, less "big box" retail development and urban sprawl, more bike paths, smoke-free public spaces and equitable public schools are among ideas receiving multiple mentions.

Lindbom and DiNovo agree there could be other possible groupings of ideas, and an ad hoc committee is refining the initial list to make improvements specific to Champaign County concerns.

"You could have 1,500 categories if you wanted to," DiNovo said. He pointed to criminal justice, now grouped under "delivery of services."

"Someone might decide that's a subject of its own," he said.

Meeting by numbers

In addition to looking at ideas, planners surveyed the people providing them. Their goal in the dialogues was to get a group representative of the county's population.

They succeeded in some respects and failed in others.

According to data generated by ACP, 681 people participated in the public dialogues, a number Lindbom called "fantastic" relative to the county's size.

ACP reported that in the exit questionnaires, nearly 98 percent of attendees reported feeling comfortable in their small group and that the process was fair to everyone.

Of those people, proportions of black people were, within a percent, relative to county population in 2003 U.S. Census data. Genders also were closely representative.

However, white people were overrepresented by more than 4 percent. Asians, who make up 7.5 percent of the county, accounted for 1.4 percent of the dialogue attendees. Latinos, who make up 3.5 percent of the county, accounted for 1.7 percent of the community dialogues.

Attendees at the dialogues also tended to be richer, older and more highly educated than the county population. For example, 45- to 54-year-olds make up 11.9 percent of the county population but made up 23.2 percent of the dialogues.

More than half the attendees had a post-bachelor's degree, even though 19.4 percent of the county has attained that level of education, according to 2000 Census data.

People with household incomes $75,000 or more account for 18.1 percent of the county population, according to 1999 Census data, but made up 43.9 percent of attendees.

Organizers acknowledge the skew and are working at finding ways to get the ideas and participation of underrepresented groups.

To help include ideas from the Latino population, DiNovo plans to hold a Spanish-language dialogue in the next 30 days. Lindbom said an additional dialogue meeting or two is possible.

The group also is having greater difficulty reaching low-income people.

"We don't really know how to overcome this," DiNovo said. "We can invite people to meetings, but we can't make them come."

Lindbom said it's fairly typical in planning for low-income people to be underrepresented in public meetings, but she felt attendees were aware of issues affecting the poor.

"Even though there was limited participation by people with low incomes," Lindbom said, "if you look at the ideas, it's really impressive how many deal with social issues."

Project recruiters are also making an effort to include members of all underrepresented groups in the next phase of Big. Small. All., DiNovo said. At a Jan. 27 workshop, up to 400 people will look at issues in terms of location and discuss ways to tackle common concerns raised in the dialogues.

"We also have an opportunity with the topical committees to ... reach out further to these groups," Lindbom said. "This process is kind of an ever-widening circle of getting people involved."

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