Lessons Learned from a Local Project

By Gerianne Smart, President, Friends of the Vergennes Opera House
Presented at the 1999 Vermont Historic Preservation Conference, May 21, 1999

1) Don’t sweat the small stuff because NONE OF IT IS SMALL STUFF! Taking on a project such as restoring an opera house or other type of building is a big deal and deserves the attention, chaos and insanity that goes with it. It is also very exciting and rewarding. So, don’t take it on unless you mean business!

2) Embrace the whiners and put them to good use. In every project there are whiners. Find a way to turn their negative energy into positive work. Ask them for solutions and go the next step and ask them to implement the solution. At the very least you have another worker and, they’ll be too preoccupied to whine.

3) Give away credit even when credit isn’t due. Simply thanking or acknowledging an elected official or organization or other prominent individual in town, even if they didn’t do as much as you or your volunteers, will go a long way in making your project go smoothly. It gets everyone on board, shares ownership and people FEEL GOOD when they’re acknowledged, even if the most they did was NOT get in the way.

4) Get people into your building or to see your project as soon as possible. Make it a one-time event or open house. Tie into another well-known local event that brings people into town. Be sure, though, that what you tell folks is positive, upbeat and hopeful so that even when they’re looking at the overwhelming project, they can feel the energy and hope in your voice and they too will be hooked by the project and believe that it can be done.

5) When you get tired (and you inevitably will), ask yourself, “If not you then who?” If you come up with a name then go get ‘em and keep things moving.

6) Enjoy the ride! All the valleys and peaks of the project, victories and failures all teach us. Remember that things will not always be as good as it gets or as bad as it gets. It will constantly change.

7) Let the building do the talking of what to restore, where to start and what NOT to do. Research, research, research! Listen, listen, listen!

8) If you’re going to do it, then do it right! Resist the urge to paint over the deterioration and make cosmetic changes for the sake of a fast-fix. Do it right even if it costs more and takes longer. The building deserves that respect ~ finally!

9) Know when you are in over your head. Continually take your pulse and the pulse of the project and know when you have to ask for help. To not admit that you “don’t know” is the crime, not the other way around.

10) Don’t ignore naysayers but thank them for sharing their “opinion” and move on. Use the energy instead to enlist enthusiastic supporters rather than try to change the opinion of the naysayer. Remember, you can run faster with the 100 who want to go than with one around your neck.

11) Be willing to sell your soul on occasion for the sake of the project, but know that you’ll get it back and it will be fuller and more vibrant for the experience.

12) Resist confrontation! No matter how much someone or some act might tick you off, DO NOT blow up. Once you yell and scream you cannot take it back and you’ll be labeled. Find a kinder and gentler way to communicate. Scream and yell on your own, in the car, at home and get it out of your system, but always be on your best behavior for the sake of the project. Remember, it is NOT ABOUT YOU but rather it is all about the project and your ultimate goal of completing it.

13) Turn everything into a fundraiser. Fundraisers aren’t just “work”, they are another way of involving the very community that will benefit from your project. It allows you the opportunity to tell the story again, enlist some ambassadors for your project, raise awareness and finally, and importantly, some money.

14) Know that what you do is important and it makes a difference. Receive the thanks that people will give to you. Be gracious. Receiving their thanks is the greatest compliment you can give to the project and to your collective hard work.

15) NOW GO GET ‘EM!