By Kate Barcellos, as seen in the Rutland Herald:

CASTLETON — The Casella Theater at Castleton University was standing room only as hundreds of municipal administrators, organizers and legislators gathered Monday for the Vermont Community Leadership Summit “Making It Happen,” hosted by the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

Gov. Phil Scott cited both John McCain and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his opening statements to the packed theater, emphasizing the importance of connection, empathy and tolerance in order to build stronger communities statewide.

“To achieve this vision of unity, we cannot let our differences and disagreements divide us,” Scott said. “We must lead by example. Show our youth how to engage in important, complex debates with both conviction and civility, prove that the strength of our nation is in its diversity of people and opinion — and that listening to, and learning from, each other is how we will continue to build on our foundation as a nation.”

The entire day was planned out and scheduled with workshops slated in Castleton’s Stafford building, Old Chapel, Fine Arts Center, Coolidge Library, Jeffords Center, Campus Center, Hoff Hall and Castleton Hall to begin in three segments, with the first beginning at 11 a.m.

“I came here to become a better human being,” said Castleton’s new Zoning Administrator Jonas Rosenthal, who said he signed up to glean knowledge that might benefit his new post and the Poultney Downtown Revitalization Committee. “Conferences are amazing. I wish I had opportunities like this 30 years ago.”

Mitzi Johnson, a panelist and Speaker of Vermont’s House of Representatives, highlighted what she coined as “radical curiosity,” opening one’s eyes to concepts outside of the realm of possibility, and being inclusive when considering projects and methods.

“It’s the importance of thinking about what could be,” said fellow panelist Tiffany Bluemle, director of Change the Story Vermont, an organization aimed at improving women’s economic status in Vermont. “We need to think aspirationally.”

Panelists explored potential community initiatives, including mandatory community service for residents to better connect them to their towns to combat the “six-second soundbyte”-type of society that communities have to find their way through in order to move forward together to make projects more functional, sustainable and effective.

After the panel discussion and a short break, attendees had their choice of their first round of “breakout sessions,” workshops with community leaders who facilitated group discussions, sharing of successes and failures in community development.

In the Hoff Hall, Green Mountain Power Vice President Steve Costello and a panel of Rutland County professionals discussed how far Rutland has come, what challenges presented themselves along the way, and who helped make the ongoing revitalization of Rutland a reality.

“Ten years ago, we had a crisis of confidence,” Costello said about the morale of business owners and organizers in the city. “(It was all) real work, in large part, by regular people.”

Costello credited the strides Rutland has made economically to the police department under then-new police chief James Baker, and Rutland Regional Medical Center for spearheading the West Ridge Center initiative, creating an outpatient addiction recovery program in the city.

“People may not know this, but crime in the city has plummeted,” Costello said.

It wasn’t just about cleaning up the city with a blemished reputation, Costello said: It was also about building and bringing Vermonters, and others, into the city to roost.

Which was where initiatives like the Rutland Young Professionals come in, said panelist and member Gwen Flewelling, also a partner at O’Brien Shortle Reynolds and Sabotka PC. She said RYP has cultivated a community of forward-thinking, next-generation workers intent on growing the city and nurturing its businesses.

“It’s provided a ton of opportunity to meet, network and make this community stronger,” Flewelling said.

Panelist Mary Cohen, executive director of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, said the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, Rutland Economic Development Corporation, and marketing agency Mondo Media helped to isolate the weaknesses in Rutland’s infrastructures, work collaboratively, and build new avenues for the city’s future successes, including working with the Foley family developers and their acquired properties downtown.

When discussing the lack of working hands, Alice Dworkin, farmer at East Hill Tree Farm in Montpelier, asked why Rutland seemed, to the outside world, so unwelcoming to immigrants and people of other cultures who wanted to move into the city.

Costello said racism is a statewide problem that affects every community.

“How do we say, ‘Yes, we are welcoming to diversity?’” said audience member Beth Miller, community impact director of the Rutland County Parent-Child Center.

The conferences broke for lunch in the Spartan Complex gymnasium, where community organizers and municipal government veterans Hank and Molly Lambert were honored with the Vermont Lifetime Leadership Award, and Pownal’s Longview Farm co-owner Shannon Barsotti was given the Vermont Community Leadership Award for her work facilitating the community-building initiative “Empower Pownal,” the first Climate Economy Model Community Program created by the Vermont Council on Rural Development, the success of which transformed it into “Discover Pownal.” The effort brought businesses, farms and social organizations together with the community to rebuild Pownal’s spirit and sustainability.

“Thank you for calling me a Vermonter,” said Barsotti, who originally hails from the Midwest. “What it means to be a Vermonter, we need to push back on that. We need diversity of all kinds and experiences.”