The City of Round Rock, Texas and the Tool Lending Center
Back in May I had the privilege of attending the 2015 Neighborhoods USA Conference (NUSA) in Houston, Texas. With other Fort Lauderdale staff, all within the Division of Neighbor Support, we conducted a number of workshops on a wide variety of programs that had produced successful community building partnerships within the city’s neighborhoods. The workshops, however, were truly secondary to our real focus at the conference as we were presenting our Adopt-A-Neighbor Program for the Best Neighborhood Program of the Year Award and we were intent on sharing the story of how the program developed and then flourished to make such a strong impact in Fort Lauderdale. In the ballroom, before the judges, we were joined by three other cities that were there to present the programs they had developed and programs equally qualified for the coveted award. One of those cities was the City of Round Rock, Texas.
Round Rock, Texas, a city of about 110,000 and located just north of Austin, made a commitment in 2014 to make neighborhood revitalization a top priority. The commitment declared wasn’t so different than that which Fort Lauderdale had made – a commitment that spawned the idea of the Adopt-A-Neighbor Program. Similar to how we approached the idea of community revitalization, Round Rock saw the necessity of bringing the community together to approach this commitment through a unified, publicly engaged force.
Their idea was to create a “tool-lending center.” The Tool Lending Center (TLC) works like a mobile library, that is a tool library hitched to the back of truck, where groups are given the opportunity to check out tools for neighborhood projects and then return those tools once they are done with them.
The Tool Lending Center is designed to be deployed for organized projects such as neighborhoods cleanups or other beautification projects where volunteers such as scouts, church groups, school groups, etc., are organized and available. Currently, the TLC does not issue tools on an individual basis – probably for the best as it encourages individuals to “team-up” and tackle communal issues rather than those of the abled individual.
On all accounts the TLC has been wildly successful in Round Rock. In the program’s inaugural year, the TLC was deployed 20 times with over 800 volunteers contributing 3,300 hours of service. Of the 20 deployments, six were neighborhood cleanups that included 3,173 homes. The cleanups resulted in 209 tons of garbage removed from neighborhoods, and volunteers worked on 72 homes of residents who had a genuine need because of age, disability, or other special circumstances. It should also be noted that the program would not have been made possible if not for the generous donation of Home Depot who donated $6,250 worth of tools.
During the City of Round Rock’s presentation for the Best Neighborhood Program of the Year Award at NUSA, they showed a video detailing the program and the program’s success. Throughout the video were people smiling as they came together to help others take on blight.
I believe it’s safe to assume that many of the individuals in the video, indeed many of the 800 volunteers that have contributed to the program thus far, don’t always come to city hall meetings on the first and third Tuesday of every month. They don’t go to City Hall to meet with the Mayor, the Council Members, or the City Manager – truth be told, they may not even now the names of their elected and appointed officials. They probably don’t participate in the government process through means which we commonly associate with public participation.
Yet, all of the volunteers that have come together through the Tool Lending Center Program, all of the individuals that have built community through sweat and muscle, are public participants and publicly participating in democracy in a joyous, meaningful way. I’ve come to view this type of public participation as the most rewarding. I love the participation where people take time out of their lives to make an impact in others’ lives through hard work and compassionate effort. This is in no way a rebuke of the public participation that takes place in City Hall and shapes policy – participation of that sort is incredibly important for a democracy to sustain itself. However, cities need to start thinking about public participation the way the City of Red Rock, Fort Lauderdale, Birmingham, Alabama, and others have. It’s up to more cities to follow Round Rock’s lead and provide opportunities for individuals to participate in democracy outside the walls of City Hall.
Learn more about the City of Round Rock’s Tool Lending Center.