A HEART FOR COMMUNITY AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

This week we’re featuring the town of Vian, Oklahoma (pop. 1,466) and sharing some of the stories of rural revival happening here! Today’s guest blog post is from Suzanne Sullivan, founder of the Vian Community Foundation. She has given countless hours to the betterment of Vian and is a champion for community and economic development. The results of her work can be seen all over Vian and beyond. Welcome, Suzanne!

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Greetings! I am Suzanne Sullivan from Vian. As a fifth generation Cherokee citizen, Vian resident on two sides of my family, and a fourth generation Vian resident on the other sides, my family roots grow deep here. I have always loved my community and have had a vision for it since I was young. My husband and I could’ve made our home anywhere, but made a calculated decision to move back to Vian to raise our family. We loved the fact that Vian, although an impoverished community, is a microcosm of the world — a blending of many cultures. But it is indeed a very unique, almost mystical place where people take “the village” concept very literally, and everyone is looking after everyone else’s children, to the point of helping raise many that are not their own or even related. 

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My husband and I have always been very involved in the community. As the only physician in town, my husband works extremely hard. He has served on the local Board of Education for 33 years, and has always served as the volunteer team physician for all school activities — so he is always “on call.” As for me, I have been a community organizer/volunteer since 1984. Over the years I have been a sponsor for the high school twirlers, organized and chaired our local Vian Junior Miss Scholarship Program for 30 years, served on a state economic development board and our regional 14-county economic development board, Northeast Oklahoma Regional Alliance (NORA), as well as attending meetings and gathering information that might be of use to our community.

In 1997, I formed the Vian Community Foundation as a means of helping the town of Vian and Vian Public Schools obtain additional funding for which they didn’t qualify. Part of the mission of the Foundation was economic development for our community. As such, I have also served the town as their volunteer Community and Economic Development Advisor.

Here are some of the key projects we’ve been able to support through the Vian Community Foundation:

  • We’ve been able to build over three miles of eight-foot-wide asphalt walking trails around our beautiful Lake Vian. We have a lake loop, a mountain loop and a prairie loop, with 22 park benches and three picnic tables scattered around the trail system that were donated by citizens in memory of loved ones. We have most recently added an additional eight miles of professionally-built mountain bike trails. And I submitted a grant the end of January for an additional eight miles of trails and some new features for children and different skill levels. 

  • We’ve built a wonderful softball complex complete with two fields, rock and brick dugouts, and concession/pressbox. 

  • We’ve built an outdoor classroom/amphitheater, and a regulation track that still lacks the rubberized surface. 

  • We sponsor our annual Vian Fireworks Extravaganza and provide VIE Grants for educators or individuals who apply for “out-of-the-box” wonderful ideas they couldn’t accomplish without the grant. We just helped sponsor our first ever 5K trail run where 560 runners turned out to celebrate and enjoy our new trails! We partnered with our newly formed Vian-Tenkiller Area Chamber of Commerce, Cherokee Nation, and many local businesses to accomplish this.

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  • We are getting ready to write a grant, which if awarded, will complete our Armstrong Park — named after the land used to develop our park that was donated by Dr. Sinclair Armstrong. (Dr. Armstrong is a retired urologist who owns all the Armstrong Banks in our state and in Arkansas. The original bank was founded in Vian by his grandfather as Vian State Bank.) Once completed, the park will house an indoor batting facility complete with dressing rooms and restrooms, as well as a kitchen and meeting room that can be utilized by the community. This grant will also complete the regulation track and soccer field, will add at least one more baseball field, and hopefully a couple of tennis courts along with parking spaces. Planning for the grant due the end of July is currently underway. If awarded, the Foundation will complete the project and then donate the park to the school. 

  • The Foundation was also responsible for the downtown streetscape with the new lights and sidewalks. There had been discussion for some time about wanting to do a streetscape plan, but as most small towns are well aware, those things cost more money than we have. So when the Stimulus funds became available and the Department of Transportation was building new sidewalks along state highways, we held them off for a weekend to see if we could find 16 people who would pay $1000 each for a new street light. Dr. Armstrong agreed to finish out the cost in order to keep the cost down. We had from noon Friday until the first thing Monday morning, and we made it! We even sold enough extra to light up the parking lot and a portion of the trails out at Armstrong Park.  

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I have learned throughout the years how much stronger we are when we form partnerships! The Vian Community Foundation could not have accomplished nearly what it has without our partnership with the Town of Vian, the Cherokee Nation, Vian Public Schools, the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, USDA, and the private sector! My mom helped organize a group called “Vian Alumni and Friends,” who took many trips together as fundraisers for our causes. That organization helped build our endowment with Tulsa Community Foundation. I remember for one particular trip, 101 friends cruised together and raised $17,000!

About six years ago, my husband and I hosted around 35 young adults in our home in an effort to kickstart a young professionals group. Out of the 35, around 10 were already doing what they wanted to be doing. Out of the remaining 25, 12 expressed a strong interest in having a business in downtown Vian. So my “Mom,” “Volunteer,” and “Community Development” hats all went on to try to figure out how to help make that happen and succeed. One of those young adults was our daughter, Callie. I had always wanted to have a store, and when I heard her say that’s what she wanted, we were ready to go! Right at the same time, one of everyone’s favorite old buildings in downtown Vian — the 1903 Vian Sundry Store — became available. Through serving on the Cherokee citizen NORA board, I was aware of loans through the Cherokee Nation’s Department of Commerce, and with the help of those loans we were able to secure funding to buy our building and inventory. That was in September of 2014. We were hoping that our store could serve as a catalyst to encourage more business in our downtown.

The day of the auction for our building

The day of the auction for our building

Renovation progress!

Renovation progress!

The end result - open for business!

The end result - open for business!

The store has been such a joy for me, getting to partner with my amazing daughter and watch her grow into an even more confident decorator, designer, and business woman. We get to go to different markets together in order to search for unique items for our wonderful customers. Our customers have enriched our lives so very much!! Being real “people persons,” we have loved developing relationships with our customers who come to us from not only our area, but from Oklahoma City to Edmond and Norman, Tulsa, and Muskogee, and even Fort Smith, Van Buren, and Northwest Arkansas! So many have become such dear friends. 

Having worked at community and economic development for many, many years, I’m well aware of the countless individuals who’ve given so much time to their communities and to the entire region! And I’ve learned how so much more can be achieved through collaborations and partnerships than can ever be accomplished individually, making so many things possible that would not be otherwise! As our communities strengthen and our region prospers, you can see the work of committed individuals everywhere. I told my husband we can pass on now, the future is in great hands with this new generation of entrepreneurs and community volunteers!!

I could not be more proud of what we as a community have accomplished, and believe the best is still ahead! 

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