AARP says it wants to make communities stronger for all ages and demographics, and its Community Challenge grants are one way the organization is making a difference in smaller cities and towns. A recent project in Silver City, N.M., is one example of this funding in action.
Mike Watson, director of AARP Livable Communities, said the grant program launched in 2017 and puts AARP’s work around livability in the public realm.
“The reason we think communities need to be thinking about their aging population is that we’re in the midst of a pretty significant demographic shift that’s been underway for a long time,” he said. “AARP has been working with community leaders and residents for over a decade to help improve communities so they’re more livable. That means having better housing options and more transportation options so when folks aren’t able to drive anymore, they can safely ride a bus or safely walk to where they want to go.”
Whatever the nature of the funded project, Watson said AARP’s goal is to kickstart its success with seed money and encourage a quick timeline to demonstrate results. The year of the grant’s inception the organization funded 80 projects, with the average project costing $15,000, he said. To date, it has funded 1,100 projects nationwide and Watson said they are just getting started.
Though the nature of the projects can vary widely, he said there are some common themes and parameters. For instance, they all are grassroots-driven and designed to enliven spaces.
“We saw that there was a need for kind of a lot of these shovel-ready, permanent installations, but also temporary demonstrations to get public involvement and build engagement and then an organization’s or a city’s future plans,” he said.
In the case of Silver City, it was clear that the grantee – Silver City MainStreet and Arts and Cultural District – had done the hard work of bringing along community partners, engaging residents and listening to their concerns and talking to downtown businesses and to elected officials as part of their broader downtown action plan.
The project is going to create some new art installations, adding some checkerboards and tablecloths on a retaining wall on a dead-end road. The goal is to bring together people of all ages around leisure activities, while adding an aesthetic element.
That’s exactly what Silver City MainStreet and Arts and Cultural District Executive Director Charmeine Wait has in mind. The activities appeal to citizens of all ages.
“We’ve also painted checkerboards, and the adjoining business allowed us to put these interpretive panels on the building,” she said. “We have a little sign that says, ‘grab a bag of checkers.’ And then we have two painted tablecloths by two women who are locals. The retaining wall is wide enough to sit on, so it’s a way to do placemaking and create a place (in an area) that’s often not used and turning an overlooked area into something interpretive and fun.”
Qualifying the impact on the community might seem difficult, although Wait has a plan to do just that.
“What’s really gonna be fun is that we have our washers game and the checkers inside this building, so we can kind of keep tally of how many people are using it over the course of this next year.”
Speaking of impact, Wait is confident that the project will resonate with other groups, too.
“This is really a great way to make projects intergenerational, family-focused and bring people together,” she said. “And if you make something nice for your residents, it automatically is good for your tourists.”
Wait said the quaint downtown is a draw, and her organization is an active supporter and advocate of that asset. She’s proud of the fact that Silver City is the earliest and the oldest continuously operating Main Street Community in the United States.
“We have a very walkable downtown that’s about a half-mile long and has about 130 businesses,” she said. “During COVID-19 we actually increased our number of businesses. That’s pretty unusual and speaks to how our downtown continues to be revitalized and makes people want to be there.”