Bringing a Community Together

Four years ago, a group of Mercer Island residents set out to create a place for the arts on Mercer Island (Mercer Island Center for the Arts, or “MICA”). The vision was bold—driven by the idea that an arts center can contribute to a more culturally connected and diverse community, forge meaningful collaboration, embrace and celebrate art in all its forms, and contribute to a vibrant town center.

After some initial planning, the organization realized some missed opportunities for community engagement. Knowing that the project would be in jeopardy without it, MICA reached out to Phinney Bischoff to lead an island-wide dialogue around the future of arts and culture within the community.

A Creative Approach

Our goal was to engage as many independent voices as possible in a way that encouraged candid, productive conversations, and removed the barriers associated with traditional research methods.

Instead of formal focus groups with two-way glass, we held laidback input sessions at the community center, where conversation flowed more organically. Instead of a traditional town hall, we recommended and organized two “community visioning sessions,” where more than 100 residents of all backgrounds and perspectives gathered in small groups to share their diverse views. Finally, we tested everything we heard in an online survey sent to an even wider swath of residents. In total, we heard from about 1,200 people: 200 in person and over 1,000 survey takers.

A Serendipitous Journey

What started as a desire to better understand what the residents of Mercer Island want and don’t want in a new arts and culture center, became a conversation filled with depth and resonance. We heard it all – support, opposition and ambivalence for the project and for the arts overall. We heard from all kinds of people – young and old, lifelong residents and newcomers, professional artists and casual appreciators. There were poignant stories about the personal significance of arts and culture, and a revelation of deeper needs.

More specifically, our dialogue revealed the following insights:

  • Arts and culture play a prominent role in everyday life
  • Youth Theater Northwest is a vital community resource
  • There is a substantial need and desire for a centralized space for the arts
  • The community has valid concerns about the project that need to be addressed, such as financial viability and location
  • Residents want to unite and strengthen the existing arts community
  • Access to quality, diverse arts education is a growing need across all ages and backgrounds

Further, we learned that people saw this project as an anchor for Town Center—one that would become an economic driver and help transform Mercer Island into a compelling destination for residents and off-islanders alike. They also saw a unique opportunity to contribute to redefining Mercer Island’s identity for future generations.

Sharing What We Heard

Our goal was to gather insights in a way that was scientific and transparent. Each of our conversations included worksheets and interactive post-it activities that left a growing paper trail of people’s comments. That feedback was tallied along the way and tested with the online survey, which yielded a wealth of quantifiable data to verify what we heard.

We compiled those findings into a comprehensive report that was shared many different ways:

  • In person at a key City Council meeting on September 17
  • Electronic versions available for download on the MICA
  • Print copies made available for anyone in the community
  • Reviewed in depth at a community meeting on October 8 that was open to all residents

Outcome

Our work helped identify and prioritize a myriad of opportunities, and the MICA team is more energized than ever about making this center a reality –all with overwhelming support from the community. The organization is currently working with the City of Mercer Island to vet developer proposals and is using our work to help inform key planning decisions. Phinney Bischoff is excited to continue partnering with MICA for the journey ahead!