By Layla Burke Hastings, as seen in The Commons:

BELLOWS FALLS—Echoes of solidarity and a desire for a unified long-term planning approach was on the minds of community members during a series of public forums led by Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) on Dec. 4, as part of its community visit to Rockingham and its villages.

Townspeople met in three spots in Bellows Falls — American Legion Post 37, the Rockingham Free Public Library, and the Moose Family Center — to begin the three-month process of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their town, and coming up with ideas to make it better.

In three 90-minute sessions at each venue, VCRD staff facilitated discussions on topics such as transportation, education, housing, arts and entertainment, and recreation, as well as attracting young people to the region and retaining them.

At the economic revitalization and infrastructure session, one resident spoke of the perception of some people who “worked in the mills, so for them economic development is a factory job.”

“But if you see this room, there are entrepreneurs, there are writers, artists, and small businesspeople,” the participant continued. “We have got to rethink what economic development is. It’s no longer in big factories.”

That statement led VCRD Executive Director Paul Costello, the session’s moderator, to ask the community about the agencies and resources at hand.

“Does this town have an ongoing conversation for economic renewal?” he asked. “Is there an organization that needs work to drive economic revitalization?”

David Stern, artistic director of Main Street Arts, pointed to several avenues of economic support for business in Rockingham; the villages of Bellows Falls, Saxtons River, Cambridgeport; and the dual hamlet of Upper and Lower Bartonsville.

But Stern also expressed concern that five separate economic-development and infrastructure entities work with Rockingham and its villages: the Great Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce, Bellows Falls Area Development Corporation (BFADC), the Sustainable Valley Group, Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance (BFDDA), and the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project.

He believes there must be some degree of overlap in the work of the five respective organizations, and he suggested a meeting to discuss coordinating their efforts.

Rockingham Development Director Gary Fox said each of the five organizations has a separate role in serving the local economy.

“The takeaway I have from the forum is that it helps if we all have the same vision,” Fox said.

“All of these organizations would benefit from a strategic planning session,” Fox said, adding that the Rockingham Historic Preservation Commission and the Bellows Falls Historical Society should also be involved in such an effort.

Stern suggested that the BFADC, the BFDDA, and the Chamber would promote effective and efficient service by forming a solid alliance and delegating specific and unique areas for economic renewal to individual agencies.

Such a consolidation could advance economic development and increase the monetary value of Rockingham’s present infrastructure, he said.

Participation ‘a sign of town unity’

The second step of the process will come Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, with a review session with a voting opportunity to solidify a plan of action for the town’s economic development and assess how to improve local infrastructure.

In February, a final plan of action will emerge, based on the areas of priority voted by residents at the January meeting.

According to Town Manager Wendy Harrison, the turnout for the nine forums — 150 to 200 attendees in all — was an additional sign of town unity.

“I feel it went very well,” said Harrison. “In the three forums I attended, people from all parts of the community had great ideas and suggestions. The visiting team members responded with examples from other towns that might be helpful for us.”

More than 70 towns around Vermont have used the Council on Rural Development over the past two decades to help them plan their futures.

It’s not the first time that Rockingham has participated in this process. In 1998, a similar exercise yielded progress on a number of fronts, including renovating downtown properties such as the Hotel Windham and the Exner Block, and the development of Bellows Falls as an arts hub.

Guilford, Vernon, and Marlboro have also participated in the VCRD’s planning process in recent years.