MANSFIELD – For nearly four decades, Doug Versaw has worked to make Mansfield beautiful, but last spring, he decided to “take things up a notch.”
Versaw and others from the Richland Community Development Group’s beautification sector signed Mansfield up for the America in Bloom program, which has helped Ohio cities like Logan and Gallipolis to brighten up their downtowns and neighborhoods.
“We said, 'let’s do it,' and maybe get more of the community involved,” Versaw said.
Places like Logan and Gallipolis say it works, and dozens of other cities describe it as a “quality-of-life program,” a “catalyst” and a “source of inspiration,” according to America in Bloom. They have seen the momentum the program creates and used it to engage their communities and transform their cities.
“I really think that it makes everyone feel better. It makes your town look better and makes people feel like your town is prospering,” said Beverly Dunkle, longtime president of Gallipolis in Bloom.
This sounded promising for Versaw, who has been working to beautify Mansfield since the 1980s when he started by adding entrance signs to Mansfield and participating in the renovation of the Renaissance Theatre, then known as the Ohio Theatre.
Once the theatre was complete, Versaw recalls what happened when they invited comedian Bill Cosby to visit.
“I’ll never forget it. He stood there on stage, and he ragged on North Main Street for probably half or two thirds of a monologue,” Versaw said. “It was awful. He was really making fun of North Main Street.”
The state of downtown Mansfield was worse then, according to Versaw. Many of the eyesores that once adorned the city have since been razed or refurbished.
“Nobody would even come up North Main Street. It was so ugly. No businesses would bring any potential people, doctors or anything, up North Main Street,” he said.
That became Versaw’s focus. He tackled projects with limited funding by harnessing the power of volunteers. One “old boarded-up building” was even torn down without spending a dollar.
With a goal in mind, Versaw asked a local excavating company, “Can you take it down if I can find someone to haul it away?”
The answer? “Yes.”
This worked out well since Versaw already had someone in mind for hauling it away. He made that call and addressed asbestos removal. Soon after, the building was gone.
Other times, local businesses would donate materials, like concrete for sidewalk repairs, and volunteers would do the work.
“So, we got rid of the eyesores, and now people drive up Main Street all the time,” Versaw said.
When the Richland Community Development Group (RCDG) started a beautification sector in 2010, North Main Street revitalization efforts were still at the forefront. But in more recent years, this group’s efforts expanded to a larger portion of Mansfield.
Last year, the sector launched “Mansfield in Bloom,” when deciding to participate in the America in Bloom competition, a national awards program for cities that evaluates them based on six criteria: overall impression, environmental awareness, heritage preservation, urban forestry, landscaped areas and floral displays.
Mansfield earned a three-bloom rating out of a possible five blooms and special recognition for its heritage preservation. It also received an outstanding achievement award for its landscaped areas. The outstanding achievement awards only go to one participant among all the America in Bloom entrants across all population categories.
“We think that Mansfield in Bloom, America in Bloom will go a long way in creating a pride in the community, and we think community development goes hand in hand with economic development,” Versaw said. “A lot of the members of the community are down. They think we’ve seen our best day.
"But what we’re trying to do is get a more positive attitude, and if we can get the people who live here looking at Mansfield more positively, we know we can get others to do the same.”
He knows it’s possible because it’s been done.
Logan in Bloom
Since Logan, Ohio – a city of just more than 7,000 people south of Columbus – first participated in America in Bloom in 2004, Logan in Bloom President Rick Webb has seen a noticeable change in the community.
“I think it’s been instrumental, especially for our downtown and the economy of the community,” Webb said. “I think, without America in Bloom, our downtown would still be dying. It really brought things to life.”
Logan participated through 2008. It stopped competing for several years but continued its local beautification efforts anyway and attended several of America in Bloom’s annual symposiums, where it has gained ideas from other cities. Logan rejoined the competition in 2016 and 2017 and intends to participate this year.
“I’ve never seen energy like we have in the past few years,” Webb said about his community’s renewed excitement for the upcoming America in Bloom competition.
In both 2016 and 2017, Logan received a four-bloom rating and was recognized for its community involvement. Last year, the city received an outstanding achievement award.
“Even though you’re trying to win awards, that’s secondary because the work you do trying to get these awards makes this a better place to live,” Webb said.
But he admits those awards have been important when building enthusiasm and attracting volunteers for the Logan in Bloom program. He called it “a bragging right.”
The Logan in Bloom program is organized by Webb and a small group of others, who plan events like “planting days.”
“Then, we give our call to the volunteers, and they show up,” Webb said.
The program reached out to Logan’s local hospital, which offered such a significant number of volunteers that Webb had to put a limit on the number sent. Webb described the volunteers as a “bunch of bumble bees” on planting days.
“We have people from all over the county who come to the city,” he said.
The program has also developed strong ties with the area schools. Local art students design floral flags, which are displayed downtown. And students learning to weld make the brackets needed to display the flags.
These community efforts, along with other approaches to watering and maintaining flowers and shrubbery, ultimately set Logan apart.
Gallipolis in Bloom
Gallipolis – an even smaller city than Logan – in Southeastern Ohio, has also prospered through its involvement in America in Bloom.
The city with a population of approximately 3,600 has consistently earned four-bloom ratings since joining the program in 2006 with only two exceptions. In 2012 and 2013, Gallipolis only received three blooms. Outside of the overall score, America in Bloom judges have commended the city for its floral displays, heritage preservation and community involvement.
Like in Logan, community involvement is the key to success in the America in Bloom contest. Gallipolis in Bloom holds planting days and an annual pageant to keep the community talking about the program.
“It’s not a money-maker,” president Beverly Dunkle said about the pageant, but it does build excitement for the program.
Children enter for $35 and compete for the title of “queen.” But all the contestants receive a crown and sashes from Gallipolis in Bloom. Additionally, the library, which hosts the event for free, gives gardening books to each child.
Awards also incentivize and engage the adult population. Gallipolis in Bloom holds frequent competitions like “yard of the week,” “backyard beauties” and “prettiest porches.” The best ones are awarded signs to be displayed outside their home. And since the signs are sponsored by local organizations, this also becomes a way to raise funds for the program.
Mansfield in Bloom
Versaw wants to make such an impact that Mansfield is unrecognizable in five years.
“I think in five years you won’t recognize this town," Versaw said. "It’ll be so beautiful that people will want to come visit Mansfield because there’s so many things to do, plus it’s so beautiful.”
Since Mansfield already has places like Kingwood Center Gardens, the Ohio State Reformatory and the Renaissance Theatre, Versaw imagines a beautiful downtown as the icing on the metaphorical cake.
“One of the goals of Mansfield in Bloom is to make Mansfield a destination,” Versaw said. “And it’s already is a destination – we’ve got things that bring people in from the outside – but we want to do more. We want people to come here because it’s a beautiful place, it’s very attractive.”
He likes to set high goals. So, he’s aiming for a five-bloom award through America in Bloom this summer and has appropriately imagined Mansfield to be comparable to Niagara on the Lake in Canada, which is known as the loveliest town in Ontario. Versaw calls it the “epitome.”
“Niagara on the Lake is so beautiful people come from all over the world to go there, and that’s what I would like, to make Mansfield so beautiful that people want to come from all over the world to visit,” he said.
“I figure if we can bring people in, some people might stay and think this is a nice community to live in and look for employment. If we have more people available for employment, maybe we can get more companies moving in or the ones we have expanding.”
It all connects.
But to make this happen, Versaw knows people can’t leave the city with any “negative feelings” about Mansfield.
“Overall, impression is what we’re really trying to focus on in town. One of the areas we’re really trying to attack is litter,” he said.
Mansfield in Bloom has begun promoting its Adopt a Street program in hopes of making the city a cleaner place.
“It’s like when you have broken windows, people throw rocks and break more windows. If you have a clean city, people will litter less,” he said.
Versaw and other organizers of Mansfield in Bloom have determined they’ll participate in America in Bloom for at least five years. Though the program costs more than $1,000 to participate in, he believes it will prove worthwhile.
“We wanted to get more of the community involved. We wanted to find ways to nudge people who might want to get involved to get involved,” he said.
So far, it’s worked. There’s now a planning team of about a dozen people and about 30 to 40 other individuals who volunteer for beatification projects. One of this year’s focuses will be on landscaping the entrances into Mansfield.
“That’s the first impression people have of the community,” Versaw said.
Other priorities include increasing the number of hanging baskets in Mansfield and the number of volunteers.
What Mansfield Can & Can’t Take Away from Logan & Gallipolis
Mansfield is significantly larger than both Logan and Gallipolis. The city’s population was estimated as 46,678 in 2016.
Dollars just don’t go as far in a larger place. There are more streets to line with more hanging baskets and more landscaped areas to maintain with more volunteers. It all costs more money and takes more time.
When blight is such a significant problem (as it is in Mansfield), “yard of the week” and other competitions used in Gallipolis can only incentivize so much. Bart Hamilton, chair of the board of directors for the Richland County Land Bank, an organization that cleans up or demolishes houses, has said, “We’ll always run out of money before we run out of houses.”
Abandoned houses can’t renovate themselves.
However, a larger population means a larger pool of volunteers. Gallipolis and Logan can attest: It’s the dedication of volunteers that’s impacted their communities most.
Mansfield’s potential is far greater, especially if it pulls in volunteers from all of Richland County, which has an estimated population of 121,107, according to 2016 census estimates.
Making connections with organizations and working collaboratively towards a goal has also proved successful for Logan and Gallipolis.
Webb has made this his personal goal for Logan in Bloom. His collaboration with the tourism bureau has been instrumental to the program -- as the bureau provides significant funding for projects. Since the organizations have some aligning goals, the collaboration minimizes duplication of efforts and maximizes impact.
Also, Webb’s connections with places like the hospital have provided more volunteers than could be realistically used.
In the process, Webb has joined several community boards and realized the potential of working together.
In Gallipolis, collaboration with the city is essential. Their first water truck, which travels around the city to water hanging baskets and other floral displays, was donated by a car dealership. But it’s been maintained by the city, which has freed up some Gallipolis in Bloom funding for more beautification efforts. Watering expenses are then covered by sponsors, whose names are listed on the truck.
Initiatives like these could be replicated anywhere and have the possibility of snowballing to create a positive momentum and a lasting impact on Mansfield.