By Susan Smallheer, as seen in the Brattleboro Reformer:,591832?fbclid=IwAR2C0V9RF_mYYRcao7hclDhvjo8VTcoLsq7HNzp6hIYXLTC22xduwBwVbHI

BELLOWS FALLS — Hometown pride is palpable in Bellows Falls and Rockingham, members of the “Let’s Take Action” visiting team of state and regional officials said Wednesday.

“The amount of affection, the place that you revere … really comes through strong,” said Martin Hahn, housing director for the Vermont Housing an Conservation Board.

There’s a “strong sense of pride” in Rockingham and Bellows Falls, said Adam Grinold, executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. “There’s a sense of pride in the authentic.”

The Vermont Council on Rural Development held the first of three days of community discussions of the challenges facing Rockingham on Wednesday, on topics ranging from attracting and retaining young people to housing, recreation, and economic revitalization and infrastructure.

More than 200 area residents participated in the nine discussions, which also included a free community dinner at the Moose Family Center.

The Vermont Council on Rural Development has been doing these community visits for more than 20 years; in fact, they came to Rockingham 19 years ago. They only come to communities when invited, said Paul Costello, executive director of the organization.

During a discussion of building redevelopment, Elizabeth Gamache, the interim director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, asked the gathering to list the communities assets – and a long list of buildings was named, including the Rockingham Town Hall and the Bellows Falls Opera House, Main Street Arts, the Rockingham Meeting House, the Rockingham Free Public Library, the Bellows Falls Square and its many Victorian ‘painted ladies,’ the historic Vilas Bridge, and many others, including the recently restored bright yellow Rockingham Roasters building at the head of the Square.

“I am falling in love with Bellows Falls,” Gamache, the former mayor of St. Albans, said.

As Allan Scott Phillips, one of the owners of Rockingham Roasters said, he and his partner Jennifer Gurley chose Bellows Falls a few years ago because it was “the real Vermont,” as opposed to the Vermont portrayed by the Vermont Country Store in Rockingham.

Gamache and others of the visiting team said the pride in community was amazing, and it shone through in the town.

But Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, who was a member of the visiting team, said the love many people had for their native or adopted hometown was wonderful, but he urged people to be as kind to each other as they are to their surroundings.

“Share the love,” said Campany, who said in the past he had sensed too often that people in the town were “talking past each other.”

He said the level of investment in the town in the past 20 years was amazing.

“You could have let this town die 20 years ago,” he said.

Elizabeth Bridgewater, executive director of the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust, which is launching a major housing project at the old Bellows Falls Garage, echoed those comments. “The sense of community pride is very strong and there’s a lot of hope.”

There were complaints about high taxes and difficulty dealing with zoning regulations, and a lack of promotion of the town and usable lists of its assets.

But Bridgewater and Phillips both said their recent experiences with the town office had been nothing but helpful and cooperative.

Jenna Koloski, the community and policy manager for the Vermont Council on Rural Development, said Wednesday’s forums was the first of three days, with sessions planned for January and February, in the community to help identify key issues and the paths the town wants to take addressing them. The next meeting is Jan. 8.