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Empowering Pownal: Meeting draws over 100

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2017-06-25

By Jim Therrien, as seen in the Bennington Banner: http://www.benningtonbanner.com/stories/empowering-pownal-meeting-draws-...

POWNAL — More than 100 residents turned out for the launch of Empower Pownal, the state's first initiative under the Climate Economy Model Communities Program.

"We bring a disciplined process that starts with listening, and that's what we're here for today," said Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, which is collaborating with Efficiency Vermont and Green Mountain Power to offer the program to two communities chosen annually.

Through a series of meetings similar to the council's Community Visits program, which has worked in 55 towns around Vermont, volunteers will be encouraged to hone in on specific projects to foster economic development and quality of life for residents. The Climate Economy program is focusing on economic development and opportunity in an era of climate change, and on implementing plans that model state-of-the-art rural development.

"This is an astounding turnout for a process like this," Costello said. "We do this all the time, and we may get 60, 70 people. Clearly, people in Pownal have a strong passion around this, and maybe strong concerns and cautions about what you don't want to see. But it's all good. This is democracy. It's really important to put everything on the table and make decisions together with mutual respect."

Toward those goals, the council has assembled a team of state officials and representatives from nonprofit groups or foundations and state and local lawmakers to work with volunteer task forces toward goals of the community's choosing.

Costello and other speakers opened the event Saturday at American Legion Post 90. Six break-out sessions followed for participants to brainstorm a list of possible projects.

At an initial meeting in May, a steering committee of residents was formed and chose six general topic themes, including Home Efficiency Opportunities; Small Business Development; Local Grid Resilience and Residential Renewable Energy Development; Recreation, Trails, Health and Wellness; Getting Around Pownal and Connecting to Other Communities, and Local Agriculture and Forestry.

The breakout sessions on Saturday developed lists of proposals under each topic. On July 25, according to program director Jon Copans, the entire community will be invited to another session, during which residents will vote on a handful of specific projects for local task forces to undertake. Those projects will be pursued along with teams of applicable outside experts offering suggestions and technical assistance.

The council is not proposing top-down solutions or initiatives, Costello said, but wants to help develop proposals that townspeople want to see pursued.

"We don't know the formula," he said, "but what we see is that towns that line up together and build plans together and work to implement those plans are the ones that become the squeaky wheels that get state and federal support. They get the grants, they get the technical assistance, because they are ready to move forward."

That is especially true, he said, for communities prepared to take advantage of opportunities emerging as an era of dependence on fossil fuels is giving way to one based on alternative energy sources and efficiency.

Among officials and others expected to work with the local volunteers are Dotty Schnure, senior energy advisory with Green Mountain Power; Paul Markowitz and others from Efficiency Vermont; Ted Brady, Deputy Secretary of the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development; Ben Doyle, Community and Economic Development director with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Development; Jennifer Hollar, director of Policy and Special Projects for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board; Jim Sullivan and Jonathan Cooper, of the Bennington County Regional Planning Commission; Christopher Callahan, of UVM Extension; Elisabeth Marx, senior philanthropic advisor, Vermont Community Foundation, and Bhima Nitta, of Power Guru.

Also attending Saturday were state Reps. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal/Woodford and Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, and representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy.

More information about the program can be found at www.vtrural.org/model-communities or by contacting the VCRD at 802-225-6393 or emailing Copans at jon@vtrural.org.