About the First Impressions Program


Read about the 2014 Program Revision

Program Materials


A program for community assessment & improvement

The University of Wisconsin-Extension often helps communities assess community development opportunities and develop strategies for community improvement. The First Impressions program helps communities learn about existing strengths and weaknesses through the eyes of the first-time visitor and provides a structured opportunity to learn about strengths and weaknesses of similar communities. The results from a First Impressions visit can serve as the basis for community action and as a way to document changes in the community over time.

All communities have difficulties viewing their surroundings as others—customers, visitors, potential residents, and potential businesses—see them. Our views are skewed by over-familiarization, a lack of differing perspectives, expectations, and a reluctance to be completely honest with our neighbors when dealing with difficult issues, such as the appearance of buildings, customer service, and the maintenance of public facilities.

How does it work? Volunteers from two somewhat similar communities in terms of size, location, and county seat, etc., agree to do unannounced visits and then report on their findings. Participants become “secret shoppers” for the day to discover what they can about a similar community or neighborhood. Participants follow procedures and document their visit using a participant guide or an online version of the guide to upload photos and comments. The guide, which ensures that evaluations and reports are thorough and uniform, requires minimal training.

First Impressions print materials and additional training and marketing resources are available on the UW-Extension Learning Store at learningstore.uwex.edu. For more information contact your County Community Development Educator or the Center for Community & Economic Development (CCED). CCED University of Wisconsin-Extension cced.ces.uwex.edu (608) 265-8136 TTY: 1-800-947-3529 cced@uwex.edu


What’s New in First Impressions?

  • The questions you like, more adaptable for your community needs. Visit teams often find the reflection questions at the beginning and end of the booklet to be the most valuable. None of these questions have changed.
  • Clearer and more consistent wording of questions and a revised table of contents that makes it easier for participants to locate topics during their visit.
  • A new “grading” system for questions that eliminates the numeric rating system and encourages participants to grade based on their expectations and provide more valuable supplemental comments.
  • More ways to access First Impressions materials.
  • Communities can access the 8 ½- x 11-inch paper version of Community First Impressions (G4040-01) at no cost and at any time by downloading a PDF directly from the Learning Store
    • Booklet-sized printed versions of Community First Impressions may be ordered from the Learning Store for a small per-unit charge.
    • The online version is created on request. Inquire with the UW-Extension Center for Community & Economic Development.
    • Supplemental training and orientation materials—including the coordinator manual, PowerPoint slides, and online videos— are also available on request.
    • A supplemental, mobile-device friendly online version of the survey allows participants to enter observations, photos, and photo descriptions using either the paper tool or their smart phone or tablet. Visit coordinators can use the online survey tool to easily compile their report. To obtain a survey link for your community, contact the UW-Extension Center for Community & Economic Development, or click here for instructions: https://drive.google.com/a/ces.uwex.edu/file/d/0B1edxvwfJTKRWWJISlgzYTBIRDg/view?usp=sharing
  • A new version designed for neighborhoods and small communities. Neighborhood First Impressions (G4040-02) is a simplified version of the original, for very small places or urban neighborhoods.
  • New sections that specifically address downtowns, retail, and tourism ideal for use with Downtown or Main Street organizations. These sections are not included in the neighborhood version.
  • More questions about timely, relevant issues, including changing demographics (an aging population, changing racial/ethnic demographics, and a focus on retaining young people), health and physical activity, sustainability and adaptation to climate change, and access to technology infrastructure. Overall, you’ll find more focus on questions to encourage community discussion about diversity and inclusion.

First developed by Andy Lewis and James Schneider in 1991, First Impressions has gone through several revisions that integrate questions about timely and relevant emerging issues that communities face. The communities of Fennimore, Wisconsin and Bellevue, Iowa first piloted the program on April 15, 1991. Since that time, hundreds of communities across the U.S. and Canada have found value in the program.

The final reports serve as a basis for community action and provide a “snap-shot” of the community at a specific point in time. These recorded assessments can be an outstanding way to measure progress within a community.

Source: Alma, WI 2009 Exchange Team

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Sample Final Report Community PowerPoint Presentations

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List and Final Reports of Participating Communities  

Past reports from the First Impressions program can serve as a useful tool for measuring progress within a community and to assess whether or not progress is being made. Communities could also benefit from the experiences of other communities participating in the program. Because leadership within communities is constantly changing, this section of the web site is used as a depository for First Impressions reports. If a community is not listed as a past participant but has participated, please send the report to to the address below and it will be added to this web site. An electronic version of the document that would be best. However, if only a hard copy is available, send the print version, and the document will be scanned and uploaded. Reports can be emailed to andy.lewis@uwex.edu or mailed to:

Center for Community Economic Development University of Wisconsin Extension 610 Langdon Street Room 328 Madison, WI 53703

To get a sense of what the final report should look like, refer to the Cable, Wisconsin report, Merrill, Wisconsin report, or  Antigo, Wisconsin report. In 2007 the communities of  LaCrosse, Wisconsin and Oshkosh, Wisconsin did a the first exchange between communities exceeding 50,000 in population.

To view a copy of the report simply click on the community name below. If there is not a hyperlink on the community name, it means that a copy of the report was not submitted to the CCED. The archived reports are available in Adobe Acrobat “pdf” form and require the free Adobe Acrobat viewer. The quality of the files varies due to the fact that most of the reports were created by scanning a print copy of the report.  Following the scan, the images were edited using character recognition software so that the text of the report would be searchable (use the binoculars icon within the Acrobat Reader software to search a report by a keyword). In some instances the OCR software was unable to recognize text and converted text incorrectly.

As noted in the First Impressions Users guide, the final reports simply record the reactions and thoughts of a few visitors. The reports are not intended to be an objective review of communities….that’s not the intent of the program. While the comments are subjective in nature, these reports capture perspectives on a community at a specific point in time. These reports might assist communities interested in gauging progress on a number of community development issues.

For a partial list of communities that have participated in the program along with links to the final report (where they are available!), see: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zzhHqWZPOgBk.kXLLEKLGPj2w




Marketing Materials

These materials could be used to introduce a community to the First Impressions Program

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Adaptations of the Program

The notion of using the “secret shopper” approach to evaluating communities has gotten a number of people excited about using this same approach in other settings. Others have chosen to make modifications to the program for use with their own communities.

First Impressions of the U.W. Extension Office – Andy Lewis (2002)  (html web-page version only)

Source: Woodworking at Price County Fair, WI 2008 Exchange Team

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This material was prepared by Andy Lewis

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