Sunflower Electric’s Clare Gustin led off with the first comment of the 10 people sitting with her at the big, round table.

Their discussion Tuesday evening was focused on the problem of how to create a strategic plan for Ellis County and Hays.

“Everyone needs to understand the vision before you have a plan,” Gustin said.

Heads nodded agreement, and the table conversation was off and running for the next hour and a half, with Hays Mayor Henry Schwaller IV emerging as table leader and Hays Area Chamber of Commerce President Sarah Wasinger as note-taker.

The round-table discussion was just one of many taking place during Session 2 of Ellis County Strategic Doing, an event organized and hosted by the Heartland Community Foundation, 1200 Main.

One of three such events in Ellis, Rooks and Trego counties, Strategic Doing brings people together to brainstorm ideas and carry out plans for their communities under the direction of facilitator Betty Johnson, of Lawrence.

A nationwide program, the northwest Kansas version is funded through $200,000 in annual grants to Heartland from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation, Logan.

Ellis County’s first meeting was Sept. 9, with about 75 attending. From the looks of the tables filling the Rose Garden Banquet Hall on Tuesday evening, at least that many people returned, breaking into small groups to formulate plans, their eager conversations creating a noisy backdrop.

“You guys are so focused,” said Heartland executive director Sandy Jacobs, strolling among the crowded tables. “I’m walking around and listening to these groups, and the focus in these groups is just amazing.”

Strategic Doing is a grassroots effort, explained facilitator Johnson at the outset. Originally from Smith Center, Johnson said the goal is “Making your community what you want it to be.”

She’s worked three years across 26 counties Hansen covers. On any given day, she said, there are 160 to 180 projects going.

“We’ve had a lot of them finish,” she said. “We’ve had a lot starting new projects, or building on what they originally started.”

Some projects are one and done, she said, but the Strategic Doing process is the same everywhere.

“Keep in mind it’s not always about getting to that big, big project in the end,” she said. “There are a lot of baby steps and baby projects that can happen in between time and that are equally important and will still make a big difference.”

Tuesday’s goal, she said, would be good conversations, defining projects, setting up outcomes and metrics, creating a plan and each group fixing a date for their next meeting in 30 days.

Fueled by a free dinner of bierocks and green bean dumpling soup at the start, nine round-table groups announced nine projects:

• Afterschool career exploration for kids sixth grade through high school;

• Creating a community and regional strategic plan;

• Mentoring new entrepreneurs aged high school and up;

• Addressing mental health by connecting people willing to listen with people who need to talk;

• Creating a child care network social event for providers;

• Increasing community volunteers by expanding the United Way volunteer sign-up web portal;

• Addressing human trafficking and domestic violence through education of law enforcement and the community;

• Creating a new multi-generational center for the community;

• Creating a diversity coalition.

The idea to create a county strategic plan was brought forward during the September session by Ellis County Fire Chief and Emergency Manager Darin Myers and Mike Leiker, county information technology director. But Tuesday evening, the topic drew some of the most people wanting to be included in the discussion.

“Lots of us have strategic plans of our own,” said Scott Cason, chief communications officer at Fort Hays State University.

“We can unfracture all the fractured efforts that have existed in Ellis County for too long,” said Wasinger. “We’re all doing great things, but we’re not doing them on the same plane.”

“It’s like a Venn diagram,” said Deb Ludwig, dean of FHSU’s Forsyth Library. “We all come from different places and we’ve got to find that sweet spot in the middle.”

“Shouldn’t it be a regional vision?” asked Jerry Michaud, president and CEO of Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas.

“We have to be good neighbors,” added Doug Williams, executive director of Grow Hays.

“If we’re going to do this, we have to be willing to listen to everyone who will talk to us,” said Gustin.

“We can have an open call meeting,” said Schwaller. “You have to bring as many people in from the community as you can.”

“In leading a region, you start at home, but you have to know at the outset it doesn’t stop at the borders,” Michaud said.

“To me it’s always been regional, Hays doesn’t exist without all the other communities around it,” said Janis Lee, former state senator.

“If we had a boatload of people giving their opinion,” Gustin asked, “what would the impact be?”

“It would be huge,” Schwaller said. New people can be added to any group, Jacobs said, wrapping up the meeting around 8 p.m. Heartland can help coordinate meetings, help with meeting sites or get information out.

“Anything you need, just call our office, we really mean that,” Jacobs said.

When Heartland awards grants each year, the Strategic Doing process will make a difference, she said, noting “Those projects get the top of the list.”

Other project ideas are welcome.

“If you have other projects within the community that you know about, come and talk to me about them,” Jacobs said. “Maybe there’s a way that Strategic Doing can be a resource for them.”