Is our community ready for a First Impressions Exchange?
First Impressions offers an effective and fun way to determine how visitors perceive communities. Each community needs an accurate and honest picture of the present before it can visualize the future. Reports and recommendations produced by First Impressions exchanges may be used as part of a larger planning process, such as a comprehensive, downtown or master plan, or to guide activities and actions of a community organization, such as a Main Street program. First Impressions offers an effective and fun way to determine how visitors perceive communities. Each community needs an accurate and honest picture of the present before it can visualize the future. Reports and recommendations produced by First Impressions exchanges may be used as part of a larger planning process, such as a comprehensive, downtown or master plan, or to guide activities and actions of a community organization, such as a Main Street program.
A community that is most likely to be ready for this program is able to recruit a team of four to eight volunteers to commit a day to conduct a community visit and another half day to plan and conduct a community meeting to discuss the results. First Impressions is a good starting point for communities that sense they need to address issues influencing the community’s ability to attract visitors, potential businesses, and future residents. First Impressions is also an excellent tool for communities that have done an extensive, objective analysis of the community but lack an external or subjective evaluation (such as some type of community economic analysis involving data analysis and comparisons with comparable communities).
Because First Impressions provides a community with an honest appraisal of their community as seen through the eyes of a visitor the final report will offer a fair amount of constructive criticism—along with praise. A community that has already received criticism from the community members, leaders, or media may not be ready for a First Impressions visit. Because First Impressions provides a community with an honest appraisal of their community as seen through the eyes of a visitor the final report will offer a fair amount of constructive criticism—along with praise. A community that has already received criticism from the community members, leaders, or media may not be ready for a First Impressions visit.
Why use community volunteers?
By participating in the program, community members become active leaders, learning about the elements of community place-making and observing what’s working in similar communities. The program utilizes community volunteers for several reasons: residents learn about best practices by visiting other communities and will be more likely to engage in the process of improving their own community, the program is affordable for any, small community or neighborhood, constructive criticism from peers is often more readily accepted than criticism from “experts,” the goal is to measure the perceptions of the average visitor.
How do we choose an exchange community?
The University of Connecticut-Extension and Connecticut Main Street Center can provide assistance in selecting an appropriate exchange community. Additionally consider contacting your local economic development corporation, chamber of commerce, main street coordinator, or business improvement district manager to request assistance. You should select a community or neighborhood that is far enough away so your team won’t be very familiar with it, but close enough to make this a one-day trip. (Overnight trips can be great too, but not everyone can spare the time.) Remember, there are no perfect matches, just similar ones. Some communities may have an interest in visiting a particular community to learn about how they implemented a specific program or technique. While this may be one motivating factor, consider that the program covers a wide range of community topics and that the visitors will be developing a “first impression” not a case study. That said, we encourage communities to establish ongoing relationships with their partner communities to share more details about best practices and challenges. You may consider some of the characteristics that impact your community when making a selection:
- County seat or location of state government
- Miles from a major Interstate
- Miles from a major urban area
- Unique geological or natural feature (river, mountain range, lakes)
- Population and demographics
- Major industries, employers
- Issues that are currently impacting your community (such as a road by-pass)
What communities have participated in First Impressions exchanges?
- This Google map shows the location of communities that have participated ( to our knowledge) and well as links to the final community reports.
How do we select a visit team?
You will need to recruit 4-8 people from your community who are willing to commit a day to conducting a community visit. Plan to make the visit together as a group (car pool). It makes for a more enjoyable experience and helps to ensure a better end result as well. Be clear about your expectations when recruiting volunteers:
- You are asking them to commit a day to conduct the visit. Tell them where you will be going and the approximate time frame for completing the visit as a team.
- You will expect them to keep detailed notes in a guide provided to them or using the online survey. Their comments will be collected at the end of the day and will provide the content for the final repor Participants should plan to bring along a smart phone (for uploading photos to the online survey) or a digital camera.
- Be clear about who will be responsible for providing transportation. If you expect volunteers to pay for their own gas, meals and purchases, simply communicate this. Obviously, it would be easier to recruit volunteers if out of pocket expenses are covered . Some communities have taken this a step further. If you can find a community sponsor, consider providing a small amount of cash for shopping to facilitate the visitation of businesses. Purchases might actually be offered as prizes to the businesses in either community that get high customer service reviews. These might be handed out at the community presentation where you will share the results of your report with the community.
- Try for as much diversity in your visit team as possible. Consider age, occupation, sex, income, marital status, race/ethnicity, physical ability and the number of years as a community residen If at all possible, try to include a youth member.
- Your team may include: a local business owner, chamber director, first select-person, youth council president, city planner, main street coordinator, media representative, non-profit organization rep, young professionals association member etc.
Generally, participants should be encouraged to approach the visit with an open mind and a willingness to interact with people of all races and ethnicities (Hispanic/Latino etc.), abilities (wheelchair access, deaf/blind), religions (variety of worship opportunities), sexual orientations (LGBT individuals/families), or by marital statuses (single, married, divorced). If participants on your team express reluctance about this, consider how this might affect the results of your visit. While comprehensive diversity and inclusion training is not within the scope of the developed First Impression materials, consider integrating this into your orientation.
How much time will this take and how much will this cost? How much time will this take and how much will this cost?
Each participating community must identify a coordinator. Realistically, the coordinator’s time commitment will be about three days. The coordinator will be responsible for generating additional interest in their community including recruiting a team of four to eight volunteers who are willing to conduct a visit. The University of Connecticut Extension and Connecticut Main Street Program will provide assistance in identifying a community exchange partner, provide support for the visit teams and an orientation to the program for each team.
Participants in the visit team will need to commit a day to conducting a community visit. Plan to carpool and make the visit together as a group. Be clear about your expectations when recruiting volunteers. They will commit about a day to conduct the visit as well as some time prior to the visit for the orientation/training and preparation. Tell them where you will be going and the approximate timeframe for completing the visit as a team. They will be expect them to keep detailed notes in a guide provided to them or use the online survey and their comments will be collected at the end of the day and will provide the content for the final report. Participants should plan to bring along a smart phone (for taking photos and uploading them to the online survey) or a digital camera. Be clear about who will be responsible for providing transportation. If you expect volunteers to pay for their own gas, meals and purchases, communicate this. Obviously, it is easier to recruit volunteers if out-of-pocket expenses are covered.
What happens after the visit?
Once you have finished the First Impressions visit, you will need to complete a single composite report summarizing the comments from your entire team with photos from the visit. Each member of the visitation team should complete their report— preferably on the day of the visit or using the online tool—and return their responses to the visit coordinator by the date promised in the commitment form. These guides with comments from team members will serve as the basis for the summary report. Coach your team to avoid “yes/no” answers and instead provide descriptive suggestions and constructive criticism. Photos from team members will also need to be collected. The final report should include a cover letter that provides a profile of your visitation team, the weather on the day of your visit, the date the visit took place, the amount of time spent in the community, a general summary of the visit, a thank you for participating in the exchange, and contact information of your group coordinator. As soon as you receive the final report from the other community and after you have sent your final report to the exchange community and set a date for a community meeting, you should then make copies and distribute them to the visitation team, local elected officials, the media, the general public.
While a First Impressions visit is a fun and engaging experience for participants, it becomes most meaningful if communities act on what they learn. We would urge communities to host a community meeting or public forum to share what was learned. This public forum is an opportunity to reflect on the final report received from the exchange community and the lessons you may have learned from your visit. It also enables you to begin to focus on whether or not there are any actions that could be taken to address potential problems in the community.
This forum should include photos as well as suggestions from the final report. Each coordinator (or a volunteer from the visit team) will have to agree to make a public presentation to the community they visited (or agree to do that themselves based on the final report and images from the other visitation team). In some cases regional meetings might be held to allow multiple communities to share their experiences.
In preparation for this public meeting, plan to have copies of the final report available along with news releases and photos for the media (don’t forget to extend an invitation to the media!). Your committee should review the final report prior to the meeting and prepare a list of points that could be addressed by some form of community action.
Are materials available for us to review in advance?
- Connecticut First Impressions Summary Program Flyer (Free PDF)
- Connecticut Community Impressions Participant Booklet (Free PDF or order formatted booklets- contact us to order)
Can I review completed reports from other communities?
- Sample Final Report PowerPoint Presentations (from Wisconsin)
- Other resources and adaptations of the First Impressions Program (from Wisconsin)
For more information contact:
Laura Brown, Community & Economic Development Educator, University of Connecticut Extension (203) 207-0063 firstname.lastname@example.org