One of the most interesting things about the All-America City Awards is the way applicants for the award define the challenges their communities face. Doing so is part of the application process. I've been reading the finalist applications to look for trends and patterns. Here's what I'm seeing so far. The most frequently cited challenge, not surprisingly, is the sorry state of the economy. How each applicant describes that challenge is a little different. Some see the challenge as finding jobs. Others view it terms of providing adequate services to the community in tough times. One community describes its as an obstacle to keeping taxes low.

The second big challenge is the issue of how growth is affecting the community. This may seem odd, given the sagging economy, but many of these applications are describing problems in the past, in other words, before the economic downturn. The growth problem is defined in a number of ways. It is noteworthy how many communities are trying to hold on to a sense of identity, often this is expressed as a desire to preserve a "small town feeling." Others see it as a problem overcoming divisions within the community, the old parts of city versus the new. The third most common challenge is downtown revitalization, followed by the need to preserve or increase the amount of affordable housing. Other concerns include childhood obesity, homelessness and community engagement.

Some communities define challenges as problems that need to be addressed. Others pose challenges as efforts to address particular needs or goals. Of, course, there is also overlap in the various categories of challenges. Rapid growth may lead to a fracture between the old and new parts of the community, which may in turn add to the challenge of engaging new residents in community life.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that many communities are defining their challenges to correspond to their best community projects, which may affect the words they use to define the issue.

Next up, I'll be looking at the projects listed in their applications.