PEPPERELL -- Board games, famous sayings written on scraps of paper, The Graduat" on VHS and a signed photo of Mike Rowe.
Each has its own story, but all can be found at the Stranger Exchange, a wooden box that has been affixed to the side of the community posting board at Leo B. Halley Park in Railroad Square for about a month. Though given the box's purpose -- "leave something neat, take something stranger," -- the above items may not be there for long. A lot of them have been put there by Economic Development Advisory Committee member Hal Sartelle, who devised the box as an art project meets social experiment, and hopes its contents will be continually switching out.
To participate in Pepperell's Stranger Exchange, one simply needs to give, take, or give and take from the box. Hal said the box is more than just a place to get something new or donate items, it's what he calls a social barometer.
"The state of the box says a lot, if at some point it was empty, that would send the message that people have forgotten to give," he said.
Sartelle's inspiration comes, in part, from his schooling at UMass Lowell Regional Economic and Social Development Department, a master's program combining economics, sociology, psychology, political science and history disciplines. The rest of it is from a re-purposed magazine box he spotted in Boston.
"Someone just wrote 'stranger exchange' on it," he said.
As part of the EDAC, Sartelle said one of the
Hal has become something of a burgeoning cartographer for EDAC. He was responsible for the map inside of the tri-fold that can be found around downtown. The brochure is a no-cost idea to promote Pepperell for visitors and entice them to walk around and find out what the town has to offer.
The Stranger Exchange is no-cost, too.
"The economy is so bad, people are even window shopping yard sales," Sartelle said.
A free exchange, which relies on bartering, not money, Sartelle said, allows anyone to participate.
"People seem to be willing to participate. My heart is serious about giving," he said.
At home, Hal said he lives "shockingly frugally."
"I work doing little jobs, and I am always looking to downsize my space," he said. "I have learned happiness from being extremely frugal."
Several years ago he set a personal goal to travel to one country for every year he's lived. Now, at age 37, he doubled it to two countries. His rule of thumb while traveling is to be able to see over the top of his backpack when he sits on a bus or plane.
"That has helped me foster the idea of not having much stuff. I seem to be most happy not weighted down by items," he said.
Pepperell's downtown area, Sartelle said, is fortunate to have a community space in and around Halley Park. With warmer weather and EDAC efforts, the space that was sparse before, he said, now is being used more and more.
"Not only does it provide better communication than Internet-bound communication, but keeps people active and healthy," he said "There are more elements of curiosity when the idea is 'come and be a part of the group.'"
Picnic tables might be coming next, to encourage more visitors to the park and help Railroad Square businesses, Sartelle said, but cost-associated things are much different breed of improvement.
"When there is a dollar cost associated with something, campaigning for them seems to burn people out and divide people," he said. "Whereas interactive art pieces like the Stranger Exchange are more communal."
Sartelle said his next idea was inspired by Senior TED Fellow Candy Chang, an urban designer and street artist. TED is a nonprofit that disemenates education, ideas and cutting-edge research.
Visiting New Hampshire, Sartelle came across one of her installations: a large board with "Before I die _____." stenciled many times over and chalk to fill in the blanks.
"It's a good example of interaction, and the beauty of it is people get to contribute one opportunity for all to see," he said. "There are a few strange ones sometimes, but they're telling.
"For the cost of a piece of chalk, to have people express themselves, that's a deal."
With the communal art pieces, and low overhead, Sartelle said he wants to get people interested in walking around and being a part of their community.
"Hal brings an artistic flavor to the whole board," said EDAC Advisor and Town Administrator John Moak. "The board is so diversified and interesting.
"Hal has time to go around talking to people. He has corner-store type conversations."
Outreach such as this, Moak added, is crucial for EDAC's mission, an advisory board looking for the answers to economic sustainability.
"He took real initiative with the visitors guide. That was the way for us to make a splash," Moak said.
Other members bring other strengths. John Masiello, executive vice president of Masy Systems, is the Lomar Park guy.
"It's a great makeup of different individuals," Masiello said. "Chet Babineau, who just joined, has brought a lot of really strong, good input about retail. There's really nobody on the committee whose been as close as he has for as long as he has."
Both Moak and Masiello praised member Kieth Bagley for the legwork with the Pride in Pepperell plan. Bagley created a presentation to bring more people and organizations into the EDAC fold, Moak said, which has helped them deliver information to the Planning Board and selectmen.
"These people obviously want to give their time to the town," Masiello said. "They're all good candidates to catch people's ears."