There were few if any empty seats during the first Jasper Together community planning meeting last Wednesday night in the Newton Knights of Columbus Hall.

The local Chamber of Commerce and other community organizations had done a great job of drawing the people to the first of five sessions designed to map out Jasper County’s future on commercial development, education, entertainment and improving quality of life. Almost every town or village was represented at the meeting that included a free meal as well. The purpose of the sessions is to get the “creative juices flowing” in the county.

The fine turnout of about 140 people drew praise from Gisele Hamm of the Illinois Institute of Rural Affairs that helps smaller communities commit to community planning and following through on feasible ideas. She spoke to people seated at several tables in the meeting hall of the K of C building.

“There’s something in the water down here,” joked Hamm when noting other area towns in surrounding counties pack the place with people willing to join in the effort.

A big part of the first session last week was getting to know more about the community through input by the participants. In two exercises, the groups at different tables filled out cards noting the history of Jasper County and then what they love or don’t about living in the county.

The history lesson concentrated on negative or positive events. Some of the negatives included the loss of the Old Mill Inn to fire, the closure or loss of many local businesses or factories, and the 1990 tornado that hit parts of Newton – even though one card noted the tornado recovery brought many people together.

Positive events, especially over the last 20 years, outnumbered the negative ones. Those cards noted many new business ventures, the river trail, expansion of the public library, a new soccer field and the Five Aprils housing project and much more.

Later during the meeting, the crowd was divided up into two large groups for offering opinions on what they love and don’t love about Jasper County. Each person filled out cards to answer those questions and then turned them in. A large circle was formed in the meeting room and the cards were passed out randomly, so no one was linked to their own opinions. Another group did the same thing in the Knights lounge room and Gisele joked that they seemed to be laughing a lot.

The answers to the question “I love Jasper County because? centered on family, small town values, friendly and helpful neighbors and a feeling of being safe.

Many answers to the question, “I love Jasper County but?” concentrated on a potential roadblock to community progress. Many participants complained of people not wanting any change, refusing to support new businesses, groups or clicks that shut out other people, especially new residents of the county.

Any success to community planning will require many people buying into the effort and working together, Hamm said. Hopefully, the naysayers can either be converted or convinced they aren’t needed until they change their attitude.

Gisele has seen what negativity can do to shoot down projects in communities. IIRA and Western Illinois University has worked with 135 communities in 60 or more counties on mapping the future over the past 29 years.

“There are communities and counties that have trouble getting together on a community cleanup or just planting a community garden,” Hamm said.

So far, Jasper County has shown it can get together. Several businesses have donated to the effort, which covers the cost of meals and the buy-in fee of a few thousand dollars for the community mapping services. The Jasper Together Steering Committee invited enough people as well and other organizations joined in that effort as well.

Now, the next step is for the people at the first session to provide some ideas on future projects, whether short-term or long-term. Then the best of those ideas will be worked out to make them happen. Hamm said the ideas due for the next session are called Big Hairy Audacious Goals or BHAGs.

There is still time to join in. Just show up at the sessions.

Another Jasper Together meeting was scheduled earlier this week in Newton. The next sessions will be on Feb. 19 in the Grove Township Community Center, 5251 E. 1800 Ave., Montrose; March 4, Sainte Marie American Legion, 105 S. Main St., Ste. Marie; and March 11, meeting again in the Knights of Columbus Hall at Newton. The tentative starting times are 5 p.m. with a free meal served before starting with the business that evening.