sxsw group photo

The Richland County Foundation sent 15 people to the SXSW conference in Austin, TX in March. 

MANSFIELD – Richland County’s done strategic plans before. But never like this.

Fifteen local representatives recently attended the wildly popular, notoriously innovative South By Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas on the Richland County Foundation’s dime and returned with an overwhelming amount of ideas to possibly implement in the area, specifically Mansfield’s central business district.

The diverse group, which includes local leaders, artists, the city engineer and an architect, is tasked with creating a new strategic plan and implementing it through their collaborative efforts. They are expected to pitch the plan to the Foundation in late 2018.

The conference attendees met for the first-time post-conference on March 28 to unpack their ideas and answer the question that many group members have already been bombarded with by intrigued friends, family and strangers: “What’s next?”

Dozens of ideas were discussed during the 2.5-hour conversation, but everyone agreed on one thing: They need to listen before acting.

“That needs to happen before we go planning our own things. We need that community buy in,” said Leona Smith, executive coordinator for the North End Community Improvement Collaboration. “There’s value in what people have to say, and it’s important for us to embrace the people who want to be a part of what we are doing.”

What is the housing solution for Mansfield?

The group hopes to hold a “listening tour,” featuring community forums, where people are encouraged to provide input to the SXSW conference attendees. They plan to have both small topic-specific, and large all-encompassing events at various venues throughout Richland County.

A digital campaign will also be developed to funnel in even more outside opinions.

“Mansfield is a diverse community with subsets of people who interact with the city differently. So, we want to ensure that we are being inclusive in both our engagement and outcomes,” said Jotika Shetty, executive director at the Richland County Regional Planning Commission.  

Avoiding the mediocrity trap

Online surveys alone, she explained, may not reach the elderly population, and busy parents may not attend an in-person event. She encouraged the group to identify the “hardest person to reach,” and keep them in sight.  

Richland County Foundation Senior Community Investment Officer Allie Watson hopes the listening tour will expand upon the already-diverse views in the group.

“I think the benefit of including everyone we have included in this project so far is based on the fact that we value multiple opinions and getting advice from local people who work, live, play and invest in downtown Mansfield,” Watson said.

“We started this project with the idea that we didn’t want an out-of-towner telling us what needed to be changed with our city. We wanted to invest in our own people to create something great for Mansfield.”

This isn’t Richland County’s first strategic plan. There’s been plenty of predecessors, but the 15 individuals who attended SXSW are convinced this time is different.

Those previous plans can likely be found in office closets all around the county, Richland Source Publisher Jay Allred hypothesized before attending the SXSW conference in February. He attributes this to a lack of accountability.

These plans were probably formed through this process: An out-of-town planning expert analyzes the area. The expert offers suggestions in the form of a strategic plan. Then, promptly leaves.

“It’s not that the plan is bad necessarily, it’s because there’s a critical disconnect between the plan and the people. Who owns it? Who is accountable? These questions create a vacuum where the critical steps of ownership, accountability and execution go to die,” Allred wrote in a February article.

It's time to re-imagine Mansfield from the inside out

Of course, the 15 people to attend the SXSW conference will be held accountable in the planning process, but they also hope to create a sense of community ownership through their listening efforts.

“We have had a history of having consultants and outside organizations tell us about what to do, but we’re the experts; we grew up here. The best people to come up with solutions for Mansfield are Manfielders,” Smith said.

Shetty sees both short- and long-term advantages to listening and including the community.

“It is likely that our residents have useful information about their community - where facilities are needed or activities occur - which can help with the design and placement of the project. Community members can also provide guidance on how to design the project so that the community will be more likely to use and be involved,” Shetty said.

“This could have the important short-term benefit of the community supporting the project currently, but also (the benefit of) the community, in the long-term, being stewards of the project themselves when we step back.”

The dates for the listening tour are not yet determined.

Follow #SXSW419 for further details or read the SXSW conference attendees’ blogs at

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