Listening to residents is key to change

November 3, 2021

Name: Cheryl Lindner 

Title: Chief of Staff to the Mayor 

City: Nashua, N.H. 

Cheryl Lindner had been assistant general manager of the Nashua Silver Knights summer collegiate baseball team and vice president of operations for her county’s Meals on Wheels operation before Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess asked her to serve as his chief of staff. “I was humbled and honored at the opportunity to give back where my family and I have lived for over 20 years,” she says. 

In that role, Lindner helped to pick a team of 13 people from departments such as community development, economic development, public works, transit, and libraries to participate in innovation training offered through the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. They strategically tapped staff involved in Nashua’s downtown because their project is focused on revitalizing the business district and attracting more shoppers and diners.  

At the outset, the team expected to hear that people were not spending time downtown due to difficulty parking, high prices, and lack of business variety. But in talking with nearly 100 residents and business owners, the team discovered other barriers, such as English-only signs that some in the diverse city could not understand, as well as red tape in gaining permits to start a business. “We reframed our problem statement,” Lindner says.  

The Nashua Adult Learning Center facilitated discussions about where improved signage was needed, and the team also asked what types of businesses residents would like to see—an ice cream shop topped the list, and one opened this summer, Lindner says. The city team also partnered with the local Chamber of Commerce and the statewide Small Business Development Center to learn more about permitting needs.  

“You have to ask the questions, and be open to the responses, and see where it leads,” she says. “Listening to the feedback of residents and potential entrepreneurs in the surveys and focus groups brought us to the place where we felt like we could implement some of the ideas in our portfolio and really make a difference.” 

The teams have made preliminary presentations to the mayor and board of aldermen on two ideas that they will move to formally propose in early 2022: creating a new position in city government called a “downtown opportunity coordinator,” and launching a small business incubator called the “innovation station” that would pair mentors with emerging entrepreneurs and help shepherd them through the process of starting a business. 

Lindner says the training the team received in human-centered design was critical. “What it taught us was: ask early, ask often, and ask the people that you want to be most helped by the outcomes,” she says. “Engage and empower the people who are the focus of your initiative. Be flexible, listen to what they’re saying, and be willing to reframe your problem statement as much as you need to, to meet those outcomes.” 

Pro tip: “When looking for input from the community, be open to feedback and be ready to change. Each person that you talk to has a unique perspective.”