Big Projects In Small Towns

Or: How to get a $25 million renovation passed.

The vision for a new Hampton Academy.

I was born and raised in Hampton, New Hampshire (pop. 14,976) and attended all the schools the town had to offer: Centre K-2, Marston 3–5, Hampton Academy 6–8, and Winnacunnet 9–12. As kids, we didn’t know it, but we enjoyed strong support from community members who tirelessly advocated for our education. Recently, I’ve watched from a distance the persistent push to get a massive $25m renovation passed that would modernize Hampton Academy, the town’s rapidly-aging middle school. Late Tuesday, word came out that the project didn’t pass, shy only 138 votes. There’s hope that a re-worked, potentially slimmed-down project will pass sometime in the coming years, but as we can see from a neighboring town, that’s not a given.

2,094 voters, eager to give Hampton’s children a better middle school, voted yes. 1,625 Hampton citizens, rightly concerned about already-high taxes in Hampton and the huge bill for this project, voted no. Neither group is wrong. Friends of Hampton Academy, an organization comprised of community members who are advocates for the school, has done an amazing job raising awareness and generating support for the renovation. But to be successful in 2017, they need to raise that “yes” number, lower that “no” number, or do a bit of both. Here are a few things I would suggest to them to ensure that that’s exactly what happens next year:

1. Hit voters in the heart

I’d share a photo of the entire fifth grade class on flyers and social media. Maybe even a grid of those kids’ individual school photos. The plea doesn’t need to be (and shouldn’t be) overly-emotional, but it should make the case that this specific group of kids — there are probably about 150 of them — will never enjoy a modernized Hampton Academy if the bill doesn’t pass. It will help inject a sense of urgency into the cause. A common refrain for people who voted down the bill is, “It’ll happen eventually. It may just take a few years.” And that may be true. But it disregards the kids who stand to benefit right now, and are missing out on dramatically-improved amenities.

2. Appeal to their brain

Create a website (mobile-friendly is a must) with a detailed financial breakdown of the project, accompanied by an annotated visual companion, that helps people understand exactly where their money is going. Make the process as transparent as possible. There should be a way to comment on and discuss specific components of the project. If people want to get nitty-gritty with the financials, let them. The price tag is scary, and understanding the details of the project is important to many voters. The visual companion will paint a bright picture of the future, and get people’s minds running with all the ways the school will be happily used not only by the kids, but by the greater community, for decades to come.

3. Tap into young alumni

I’d be curious to discover how many 18–28 year olds who don’t have kids yet and who graduated from Hampton Academy live in town. Whatever the number, I’d also venture a guess that the local voting turnout of that demographic is pretty low. Friends of Hampton Academy should work to activate them by hosting informal, nostalgic walkthroughs of the school for interested parties. There would be pizza, refreshments, etc. and a chance to convert them into voters and advocates for the project. In addition, Friends of Hampton Academy should run Facebook ads featuring old class photos, and target them to people within the desired demographic. Facebook makes it incredibly easy to do so. Millennials are a forgotten segment of the local voting population, and with some effort, could be the group that pushes the project over the top.

4. Don’t forget the grandparents

Make a special effort to bring students’ grandparents and their grandparents’ friends on board. Host breakfasts just for grandparents and their families in the weeks leading up to the election. Educate them about the specifics of the addition. Encourage them to become evangelists for the project so they can convert their friends. (Seniors love to gossip, after all.) I bet that many families who were all for the project would be surprised that their grandparents, conscious of the high taxes, went to the booths and voted “no.” And they weren’t wrong to do so! But tell them the stories. Show them the school. Bring them into the mix. And for that matter, keep them there, even after the vote passes. Seniors turn out to vote in incredible numbers, and their ongoing support is crucial.

Now, keep in mind: I have no public experience. I have limited understanding (but tons of appreciation) of all the effort Friends of Hampton Academy put in to get the addition passed. The project will be back next year, and it could very well pass in its current form, or a slightly-changed one, without using any of these suggestions. They were only 138 votes away as-is.

But I wanted to share a few out-of-the-box ideas that could be helpful to not only the Hampton Academy renovation effort, but also to other schools that had projects that failed this week, and are turning to 2017. You’ve got 11 months and 28 days. Good luck!

Thanks for reading! I’m on Twitter @adamokane. You can email me at adamokane@gmail.com.