Aurora will soon be celebrating its 150th birthday.

With that milestone, comes some honest conversations about history, economic development, job opportunities, quality of life and long-term commitments.

I am proud to be part of those candid conversations in recent months, as a core group of community leaders have embarked on a GRO 2.0 journey.

Just what exactly does that mean?

Well, John Paul Lee is our leader, which was a good choice. He has the down-home charm of his father, the late John Jay Lee, with the unique energy, honesty and determination that only he could bring to the table.

We are nearing the 10-month mark of our two-year commitment. With that timeline comes some soul-searching and discussions about long-term stakeholders, whose work will remain in place long after the two-year time limit winds to a close.

Now, let’s backtrack a little bit. Growth in the Rural Ozarks (GRO) was a program launched in 2016. The effort was developed in partnership between USDA Rural Development and Community Foundation of the Ozarks (CFO), in response to the economic blight that was developing in the Rural Ozarks. Numerous communities were facing the same problems.

In the initial phase, three communities were selected to participate in a three-year program. The three communities are Marshfield, Salem and Sarcoxie. Aurora was a runner-up in the application process. Undaunted, we kept the communication lines open and asked questions about how we were scored, what our strengths were and what we could do to improve our weak spots.

That willingness to be open to improvement, change and growth paid off by the GRO officials. They saw that transparency and a willingness to do whatever it takes to improve things for our town as a big plus.

They realized we already had a ton of folks doing good things in the Summit City of the Ozarks. But we needed some fresh eyes, additional vision and some additional resources to keep us heading in the right direction.

Given some of the early successes seen in these communities, the program was expanded to include two more communities in 2018. These communities included Aurora and Buffalo, who quickly garnered the needed financial commitments.

The focus of GRO program is designed to help improve the economy, streamline communication, attract new businesses and improve quality of life for citizens of all ages and interests.

Our GRO 2.0 efforts were supported with a total of $20,000 raised by the school, the city and local civic clubs and businesses. It will last through 2019 and beyond.

The sections of the program have been divided into five categories: Program Governance, Community Engagement, Business Growth and Development, Workforce Talent and Pipeline and Infrastructure.

Hrishue Mahalaha is our mediator at the monthly meetings. He provides talking points, suggestions, resources and information about what the other GRO communities are doing. We talk about what’s working, what’s not and how best to prioritize our time. He has garnered a promise of transparency from the core committee and the various leaders of the projects. We use that honesty as a way to build growth and trust with one another, leaving personal feelings aside when we are conducting community business.

We have an Aurora GRO 2.0 Credo, which states:

1. Aurora is my home. I will do what is in my power to make it better.

2. I will commit time each week to make my home better.

3. I will hold myself/my colleagues accountable to our commitments.

4. I will be purposeful and measured with my words.

5. I come with respect and humility. I recognize that we must work together to build a better home.

6. I know that there are people suffering in my home. I will take this opportunity to seek them and alleviate their pain.

7. I commit to a process of learning and personal evolution.

8. I will lead by example. I will let my actions do the talking.

My focus has been in the Community Engagement arena with some marketing strategies. We have a Facebook called GRO 2.0 Aurora, Missouri: Growing Together. We are working on a variety of ways to keep people interested, engaged and informed through print media, social media and word of mouth. We are also in the planning stages of creating a new Aurora promotional video.

We have a great team of people working in the trenches. Some of them include: Marsha Egan, Brad Boettler, Ashley Kennedy, Jeramie Grosenbacher, Scott Pettit, Theresa Pettit, Marcia Sadler, Shannon Walker, Jack Muench, Matt Maples, Paul Ward, Dawn Marie Oplinger, Jon Holmes, Jake McCully, Michele Parbury, Mike Thach, Shawna Clark, Jan Spring and Dr. Billy Redus. We also have some high school students from my Leadership Class and STUCO. These students keep us up to date on what they would like to see and do in their hometown.

Some of our early victories include:

We are wrapping up a second community survey to help establish priorities. We have received well over 300 submissions. The data from that survey will be analyzed and prioritized in the coming months. We are building websites and social media connections to improve communication and engagement. A slogan has been selected, two orders of signs have been purchased and two orders of t-shirts are in the books. Efforts to educate those needing to improve their finances and stability are being put in place through a program called Project RISE. More than 13 families have embarked on this journey. Cleanup/beautification efforts continue to receive attention. Monthly meetings continue on the third Thursday of each month at 201 S. Madison at 8:30 a.m. Everyone is welcome. Business 911 and Create Here platforms are in place. We are creating a list of volunteer opportunities for Legacy Service Days throughout the year. We are working to establish a set of talking points to help establish that consistent message about Aurora and how it is an active, vibrant community with access to healthcare, restaurants, education, civic groups, industry and businesses.

I am excited about the GRO 2.0 conversations, work ethic and a renewed commitment to improve the quality of life in a town that I simply love.

My parents moved here in 1950 from northwest Arkansas. To them, the community symbolized hope, teamwork, connections and opportunity. Through good times and rough spots, Aurora continues to be that bright spot for those of all ages needing a helping hand, a shoulder to lean on or that creative push to get outside your comfort zone. At the end of the day, I love to say—All Roads Lead Home. For me, HOME will always be Aurora, Missouri, USA.

If you have ideas to share with us, please feel free to email jplee@cnbbanking.com or kmobley@aurorar8.org.

We remain committed to -- AURORA: One Town. One Team. One Hearbeat.

We hope you’ll join us on this journey.