EMORY, Va. -- Emory & Henry College and The Rensselaerville Institute are reviving a concept that has helped communities get water, sewer and other projects completed without so much government red tape.
The college hosted a national event this week that focused on the institute's Community Sparkplugs program. Participants from at least five states were on hand to talk about their experiences with the program, and how it can be effective in the future. It was the first such meeting held by the institute since 2000.
The program works when a community wants a particular project -- waterline extensions or community centers -- and volunteers, led by one passionate person called the "sparkplug" get together to get it done. The projects typically cost half of what it would traditionally cost, said Jim Wallace, senior fellow at the institute who works on the E&H campus.
"We're kind of reinvigorating the notion again," said Wallace, who for 22 years worked for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, where he worked with the Sparkplugs Program, part of Self Help Virginia. "We thought the timing might be good because of the reduction in [state and federal] funding, because most of us could do these projects for about half the cost."
During the meetings, which also included updates on similar programs in other states and trips to work sites in Virginia, those identified as "sparkplugs" in past programs shared their experiences.
Mike Taylor and his wife, Pauline, worked on the first Self Help program in Virginia in the late 1990s, bringing a water line into the Smith Ridge community in Tazewell County. They organized a team of volunteers to dig and lay the line for seven miles at a cost of $250,000, far less than the estimated price tag of about $1 million.
"What amazed me was the empowerment of the community to do that," Mike Taylor said. "... I had real doubts to start with about how it would work. But when we got to doing it, the pride and the camaraderie on Smith Ridge was amazing."
Before the project, folks in the community would buy water by the 500-gallon loads, ordering it from the fire department and storing it in plastic tanks in their yards. Or, they used cisterns or wells, but the wells didn't have enough potable water to use reliably, Taylor said.
"I look back at our experience now and it just amazes me," Pauline Taylor said. "To other communities: You can do it."
Wallace said that the program worked well in the past, and there is still a need for public projects.
"It's an opportunity to solve a problem," he said. "It's not for everybody, but for some folks it's good ... The institute and the college are looking to take the characteristics of the Sparkplugs Program and expand it. Through the college and the institute, we're looking to apply that in a lot more ways and for the states to learn from each other."
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