BY BILL LOCKWOOD, as seen in The Shopper:

BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – On the evening of Dec. 4, a large, interested group from the Rockingham community responded to the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s nine community forums held at three locations in Bellows Falls. The Rockingham Selectboard had invited the council to bring its process of involving residents of the town in reviewing the challenges and opportunities facing the town and in setting priorities for the future.

The forums were the first step in a three-step process. The council representatives will now compile and review all the information gathered at the forums and return Jan. 8, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. to present their findings, ask for a vote from residents on priorities, and to form tasks forces from among the participants to create action plans that will then be presented in February.

This is a process the council has done for 20 years in over 70 Vermont towns, including a prior visit here in the late ‘90s during what some call the “Rockingham Renaissance,” and there was a Creative Economy process in 2007. Jeanie Levesque, who was one of the local organizers of that first visit, said, “It’s exciting to have them here again because a lot of good came out of it before.”

Town Manager Wendy Harrison said, “I’m looking forward to hearing all of the ideas from the community. This is a great opportunity to develop a vision and chart a path forward together.”

In his remarks at the community dinner, Paul Costello of the Council on Rural Development said, “We have the power in our communities to make democracy real. Change is done by people who stand up in their own communities to find a trajectory that is common.”

Prior to Wednesday’s forums, the topics were picked by a steering committee organized by the town. The nine topics – addressed in three venues, the Rockingham Free Public Library, the American Legion Hall, and the Moose Family Center – were tourism and lodging; transportation; attracting and retaining young people; education from early ed to workforce development; building redevelopment; arts and entertainment; economic revitalization and infrastructure; housing; and recreation. The scheduling was such that no one could attend more than three complete sessions, and there was a well-attended community spaghetti dinner at the Moose Family Center for all before the last three simultaneous sessions.

Each session was led by a facilitator and lasted an hour and a half. Each had a team of outside experts from a statewide group of staff and volunteers, all experts in various fields, who offered input as well as anyone who wanted to attend and contribute from the general public.

Each forum was structured to start by looking at the positives of the topic, then looking at the challenges, and finally ideas for actions that will move things forward. An example from the sessions was a positive feeling expressed by participants, who had moved away and returned, that this area is more vital than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and it is “thriving” in comparison. Another common idea was that even though there are a lot of resources and things to do – and despite some online and print means of communication – often people don’t know what’s here or what’s happening.

Many specific positives and negatives were brought up in all the sessions. Some of the ideas presented were that the community refurbish some of the derelict buildings, create a co-working space for home office workers, subsidize internet fiber everywhere, create more diverse activities such as a bowling alley or dance venue in addition to existing bars and pizza restaurants, and even have a hemp facility open for tourism.

All the concerns and ideas are now in the hands of the council who will compile them and put together their presentation for the next step Jan. 8. Their contact is Jenna Koloski who can be reached at [email protected] or 802-225-6091.