Shoestring Socials Community-Building Events Needn't Break the Bank

Americans today are working harder and spending more time on the job these days. And when they finally arrive home at night, they tend to turn on their computers, iPods or televisions as their primary source of entertainment. In fact, a study by the Entertainment Software Association found that 67 percent of American heads of households now play computer and video games.That type of “recreation,” however, doesn’t exactly build a sense of community among neighbors. Faced with that reality, homeowner associations must be more innovative and persuasive than ever if they hope to get residents off the couch, out the front door and participating in association events.

Fortunately, creating community-oriented activities doesn’t have to involve massive planning or great expense. Bringing an association’s residents together can be as simple as opening the community center for regular social hours or inviting them to participate in a potluck dinner.

Dish Up a Variety of Events

“We have a small committee—the Friends of Ridgewood—that sets up events. They’re all volunteers, and they enjoy doing it,” says BarbaraSantiago, on-site manager at Ridgewood Village Condominium Association in Chicopee, Massachusetts.

With a significant population of “over-55” residents, that effort may be easier at a community like Ridgewood than at communities with a larger percentage of young families, Santiago concedes. But there are always ideas available for family-oriented activities.

At Ridgewood, dinner gatherings are popular; a St. Patrick’s Day meal drew about 40 residents, and the annual pig roast is a favorite event. But younger residents are not forgotten—and homeowners who don’t have children at home are welcome to bringgrandchildren to events like the Halloween party.

In addition to these special events, there are more casual activities like Tuesday evening card parties, to give residents the opportunity to mingle. “We have a pretty good sense of community here,” Santiago says.

To spread the word about upcoming events, the committee relies heavily on bulletin boards located at the community mailboxes. “Whenan event is coming up, everyone is aware of it,” she says.

Developing community involvementis high on the “to do” list for Jason Rickman, CMCA, AMS, owner of Rickman Management in Worcester, Massachusetts. “We even try to make annual meetings an opportunity for residents to come together, more than just a business meeting,” he says. At a recent annual meeting in Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, residents were given information about other events going on in the community to maintain that momentum.

“Most of our communities have a yearly barbecue; it’s just a chance for people to get together,” he says. “Peoplereally seem to enjoy it.”

But do people turn out for association events? “It depends on how well planned and how well marketed the event is,” he notes. Getting the word out, he says, is an important part of hisjob managing associations throughout Worcester and Middlesex counties and beyond. “We really try to push the events.”

As a result, he says, it’s not unusual to have 50 to 60 percent of a community’shomes represented at an informal gathering.

Events that involve food seem to be among the most popular activities at communities, and if providing munchies isn’t within reach for an association’s budget, residents don’t seem to mind chipping in their share to participate, managers find. But homeowners don’t always have to reach into their wallets to enjoy each other’s company, Rickman notes. “We’ve done bike trips along the bicycle pathsthat have replaced old rail lines,” he says. “We’ve done walking tours around the community. Participation isn’t always as high as I’d like it to be, but it does help generate that sense of community.

“I really push that ‘community’ idea,” he says. “It’s part of my management philosophy. If the board suggests an idea and it seems to spark attention, we’ll try to go for it.” Community-generated ideas, he notes, have ranged from a trip to Canobie Lake Park to a pot luck dinner that moved from hometo home for each course, and a neighborhood clean-up for Earth Day.

“It’s a little easier at smaller communities, where people tend to know each other and are more comfortable getting together, and I find that residents in townhome associations seem to be more involved than those in garden-style units, for some reason. And some communities are just more active than others,” he says.

Get the Word Out

Associations have a long-standing tradition of send out monthly newsletters for facilitating gatherings and keeping the community abreast of weekly happenings. In today’s Internet-dependent world, many associations find that a website can be a portal for updating residents about events. “We’re very big on using the Internet, and more associations are starting to have websites,” he notes. “Email is great forshooting information out to promote events.”

It’s possible to go beyond email notices, too. Shakira M. Brown, publicrelations and marketing consultant with, a marketing advice blog for small businesses, suggests that to reach the computer game users, for example, it’s possible to put information right in front of them, exactly where they are going to read it.

“Mainly, HOAs need to figure how they can integrate offline community initiatives online,” she says. “Unfortun-ately, it is not as easy as saying ‘Turn off your computer and hang out with us.’ Instead, the HOA staff needs to engage its audience via platforms theiraudiences are already using, such as staging video game tournaments to engage school age kids (and perhaps adults) playing together as a community. Online communities are viable tools to promote offline activities.”

Brown says HOAs should continue to conduct activities that bring families together but foster relationships with the families online via social media sites such as MySpace or Facebook. “Develop a MySpace or Facebook pageand create activities online to start conversations relevant to the community,” she says. “You can also use your pages to better promote offline events —such as that Easter egg hunt—and even recruit individuals to help create activities surrounding events.”

However, social networks aren’t withouttheir share of problems. MySpace —which has topped over 100 million members—and Facebook are free sites that do not cost any money to start, but they are open to the public and accept advertising, which can become a nuisance to its users. In addition, if the association and its residents have online pages, there is also no centralized location for all of the pages to meet. But it is a start.

More Options

There are other more-private options for creating online communities. Matthew Goldstein, chief operating officer of in Brooklyn, NewYork founded his online community program for multi-housing residents in October 2006, and launched it in January 2007.

“How many people are going to knock on your door and ask for eggs or a playdate if they don’t know you?” says Goldstein. “On a site like ours, you get to know your neighbors beforeyou even knock on their door.”

Residents are given a username and password and can talk to other residentsin the building. The program has a one-time fee of $6,000, the system can be customized, and children can be prevented from entering without permission.

Associations can try to cultivate ties with residents by hosting job fairs, winetastings, GED classes, Bible study sessions and barbecues. It’s important, though, to remember that not all events will work for all communities. One property manager admits that a jazz night, which included a tasty chocolate fondue area and coffee bar, was not popular with her residents. But she hasn’t given up; she is considering removing the fondue and coffee bar and creating a stand-alone jazz performance night.

Benefits of Participation

By participating in events, both residents and associations stand to benefit. “It brings the community together and there are mental, physical and community spirit benefits,” says Michelle Linke, education and recreationmanager at a New Jersey association with 3,200 residents. For the association, a successful recreational program can actually benefit the building’s bottom line. Events can also help “sell” the community’s lifestyle—so it’s also important to encourage those who participate in a successful event to get the word out about how enjoyable it was, and encourage others to attend the next gathering.

Still can’t tear folks away from their TVs and laptops? Think out of the boxand into the computer and television screen; schedule GuitarHero video game tournaments, movie nights, or even resident chats in a secure online location. Once you’ve hit home with the means most of us are using to communicate and entertain ourselves these days, word will spread like a computer virus.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York, who admits that while writing this article she took a break toplay Guitar Hero with her 13-year-old son.

Pat Gale, associate editor of New England Condominium, also contributed to this article.

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