We all know we need people moving into our community to help keep it healthy. New residents fill job openings, pay taxes, populate schools, and spend money in the local economy. Plus, they bring in fresh ideas and new energy to keep things moving forward.
For these reasons, communities spend a lot of time and energy attracting new residents. We focus on economic development and tout our strong schools, reasonable cost of living, and low crime rate. But what we often don't consider is what happens once they get here.
As I travel across the country and visit different communities, I find that at times people may do a great job on the hard stuff and forget to do the easy stuff. We need to make it a point to celebrate and include newcomers. When communities do a good job of this, it can be very powerful.
Think about your own social circle. When you've lived in a community for a while, you already have well-established groups. It can be hard to invite people in. But seeing these "closed" groups only makes newcomers long for their old community.
Most of us don't mean to exclude anyone. But we're all busy and we might not always make time to welcome newcomers. We need to get intentional about helping our community feel like home to them.
Having worked with chambers of commerce across the country, I know these organizations are in a unique position to help newcomers. For starters, chambers have a vested interest: They need a new leadership pipeline and fresh ideas to breathe new life into the community. Also, they know everyone in town and are masters at connecting people. Here are some ways chamber members and anyone else can get intentional about welcoming newcomers to town:
Do more than the "Welcome Wagon" thing. In addition to dropping off cookies and brochures, invite the newcomers to a civic or club meeting or a downtown festival. But don't ask once and drop it. Without pressuring, check back in and ask again. It may take a couple of tries before they realize you are sincere.
Assign someone to be a "buddy" to the newcomer. This works across all sectors: schools, neighborhoods, businesses, and churches. If someone owns the task of making sure they get involved, it's more likely to happen. Give them a real role in a group or club, one like they used to have in their old community. Don't "cookie-cutter" this. Do what really makes sense. If someone has a background as a music instructor, you might ask them to be part of the local arts committee.
Let them know you value civic engagement and get them involved. Assure them that you want to hear their voice. Outsiders can often see things we can't!
Really let them into your groups; don't just extend a superficial invite. It's easy to say, "Why don't you come to my book club?" or "We'd love for you to join our neighborhood spin class." It's another to engage them in conversation and introduce them to new people once they're there. Don't abandon them to talk to others. Make them your honored guest.
Celebrate them. In 2018, the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce in Palatka, Florida, created an award to celebrate a newcomer in their community. I love the idea—it just feels good and gets people thinking about how to welcome other newcomers. Also, I heard about another chamber that had a local radio personality sit down on stage with a couple who were new in town and “interview” them during their annual luncheon. There are lots of great ways to make newcomers feel a sense of belonging.
We spend so much time attracting newcomers that it only makes sense to take care of them once you get them. It creates a ripple effect. They will tell others. People are what make our community great. We need to always remember this. PM
Quint Studer is author of Building a Vibrant Community and founder of Pensacola's Studer Community Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the community's quality of life. For more information, visit vibrantcommunityblueprint.com.