What makes a small town so special? Just ask Collingswood

Small towns tend to have similar characteristics, but some would say Collingswood stands out among them as a town that is more invested in the success of its community. Thanks to a large community effort, Collingswood recently won a spot among the finalists in the 3rd annual Reader’s Digest We Hear You America contest, the town’s second national contest win in three years.

Collingswood came in 16th place in the Reader’s Digest contest, in which the top 18 towns were awarded prize money and bragging rights. The win came just a few years after residents voted their farmer’s market America’s Favorite in the American Farmland Trust’s contest.

Over 30 million votes were cast for small towns across the nation, but Collingswood received a hefty 660,000 votes for the community of only 13,000 people, and their place among the finalists earned them $5,000.

There is “something very special in the air” of Collingswood, said its Director of Community Development, Cass Duffey.

Duffey said she has lived and worked in other towns and often there is “no investment in the community.” In Collingswood, however, everyone is “connected by the community thread.” The mayor is known for frequently saying that Collingswood is the kind of town where if you ask for 10 volunteers, 50 will show up.

From a contest to a campaign

Promotion for the contest started in November. Right away, Collingswood was in the top 50, Duffey said. They knew that the only way they could win would be if “the people who really love the community take the time” to make it happen.

And they did.

The effort grew into a real campaign. A single person could vote as many times a day as they wanted, so businesses contributed to help organize formal “vote parties,” while residents used social media to remind friends and neighbors to vote. Facebook events asked people to vote during Survivor episodes or during the commercials of an Eagles game.

“The longer it went, the more it grew and grew,” Duffey said. Toward the end of the voting period, Collingswood was “neck and neck” for the final spot with other towns. Local organizers held a final voting party, where residents in town voted so many times they eclipsed the competing town and two others.

“It’s no surprise that Collingswood won the contest. The community is so strong in Collingswood… Everyone is always there to lend a helping hand,” lifetime Collingswood resident Christina Stout said.

It seems to be important to Collingswood residents that they “make sure everyone knows their town is the best,” said Duffey.

“I don’t know if there’s one umbrella” for why Collingswood residents are so enthusiastic about their community, but Duffey thinks it is probably “a little bit of everything,” including a long family tradition and good energy that draws people in and rubs off on visitors who are shopping and eating in town.

Stout agrees that there is always something interesting to be a part of in town, from the May Fair to the Cruise Nights and the holiday parades.

“It’s like something out of a Norman Rockwell picture,” she said.

“Collingswood’s win is great, but no surprise considering that it was a community-driven effort. Collingswood’s residents are extremely proud of where they live,” Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said. 

“It’s wonderful that they were given the chance to speak up and pull together to make sure we were recognized as one of the top towns in the U.S. It was a lot of fun along the way, too.”

Investing the money back into the community

Borough administrators say it is important that the prize money be used for something other than general budget use. After voters expressed interest in either artistic displays or a project in Collingswood’s main recreation area, Knights Park, it was decided that the borough would request designs from local artisans and hold a contest for residents to choose their favorite plan. The winning artisan will be given the money to construct his or her creation in Knights Park.

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