BY ZOË NEWMARCO, as seen in the Randolph Herald:

On February 21, the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD), a nonprofit dedicated to supporting rural communities, will host the first of four forums for residents in the towns of Royalton, Sharon, Strafford, and Tunbridge. The first meeting will be held at the White River Valley High School in South Royalton.

Paul Costello, executive director of VCRD, explained that the council is a “neutral convener of the public process,” and that the nonprofit’s role will be to facilitate discussions between local community members in order to discern goals for the future of the four-town region.

Costello noted that VCRD generally only works with towns individually.

“I love to see towns working together,” he said, emphasizing that VCRD recognizes that each town has its own unique needs and priorities. One way that VCRD plans to recognize the individuality of each town, he noted, is to hold one forum in each town.

Earlier this year, VCRD developed a steering committee of residents from each of the four municipalities. Members of that committee helped VCRD choose forum topics that they felt are relevant to all four towns.

The first forum discussions will be held on the topics of economic and cultural vitality, as well as affordable housing and senior living.

Four-Town Connection

In 2016, reporter Nicole Antal discovered the plans of Utah-based engineer David Hall to build a large, self-contained community known as “NewVistas.” Hall purchased close to 2,000 (of an intended 5,000) acres of land for the project within the four towns, which he chose due to the close proximity of the birthplace of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church. In June of last year, Hall abruptly announced that he planned to sell the land, noting that local opposition had finally worn him down.

Prior to Hall’s decision not to pursue the NewVistas project, a group of local citizens created the Alliance for Vermont Communities (AVC) in opposition to NewVistas. AVC continues to lead smaller-scale economic development projects within the four towns. AVC members reached out to VCRD last year, asking the council to help residents of the region set goals for their communities.

Costello noted that the VCRD was formally invited by the four selectboards to work with the towns.

After the initial forums, he noted, VCRD will hold another meeting to help the community members prioritize their goals, and form task forces to help meet them.

Each forum will begin with a free community dinner at 6 p.m., and the discussions will start at 7 p.m.

The second meeting will be held at the Tunbridge Central School, on March 14, the third at Barrett Memorial Hall in Strafford on March 21, and the final forum will be held on March 28, at the Sharon Elementary School. For more information, contact Jenna Koloski at [email protected].