BY ZOË NEWMARCO as seen in the Randolph Herald:

More than 100 people crowded into the gym at the White River Valley High School in South Royalton last Thursday evening, to begin discussing ways to improve the four-town region of Royalton, Sharon, Strafford, and Tunbridge. The meeting was the first in a series of “community visits” run by the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD), in an effort called “Our Four-Town Future.”

VCRD Executive Director Paul Costello explained that the nonprofit works as a neutral facilitator to help community members set goals for their municipality (or region) and determine how to meet those goals. VCRD is the organization behind the Randolph Region Re-Energized efforts.

Community members in the region began working together several years ago in opposition to NewVistas, a large development that Utah-based engineer David Hall had proposed to build in the four towns. Hall announced that he would not be pursuing the development last June.

Costello noted that while many people in the region opposed that development, he’s enthusiastic about the opportunity to support local people in coming up with a vision for the region they are excited about.

After enjoying a dinner catered by Bethel’s Willy Walker, with ingredients supplied by local farms, participants had the option to attend two facilitated discussions, one on the topic of senior and affordable housing, and the other on economic and cultural vitality within the four towns.

Costello led the discussion about housing, and participants shared a wide range of issues within each of the four towns, including landlords that don’t maintain properties well, a lack of housing accessible to those with limited mobility, slow-to-sell real estate, and limited affordable housing for working-class people.

Costello spent much of the evening inviting suggestions from community members about potential solutions to the challenges mentioned. Ideas from the group included renovating derelict properties, and creating rent-to-own housing options.

Jenna Koloski of VCRD facilitated the forum on economic and cultural vitality, and noted that while the topic was very broad, participants voiced enthusiasm about a number of ideas, including supporting small, local businesses and agriculture, creating and maintaining recreation trails in the four towns, and improving community interaction and communication within the four municipalities.

After the event, South Royalton resident Jenn Hayslett, who attended the economic and cultural vitality forum, said she was enthusiastic about how the night had gone.

“I was pleasantly surprised that the common ground…was commonly felt in the group,” she said, noting that she was excited to see so many young adults in the community.

Following Through

Koloski explained that the discussions are preliminary brainstorming sessions, and more specific plans for the region will be developed further into the process. VCRD has scheduled three similar forums throughout March, one in each of the towns, addressing different topics of interest in the region.

Following the final forums, she said, VCRD will return to the region for a “regional priority session,” at which VCRD staff members will help community members create task forces to meet goals created during the initial forums.

Koloski emphasized that all community members invested in the four towns are invited to attend the three remaining forums, and that childcare will be available, provided by area students.

She noted that the forums are free of charge to the municipalities and attending community members.

The next community night, scheduled for March 14 in Tunbridge, will include the forum topics of attracting and supporting young residents and families, agriculture, and forestry. On March 21 in Strafford, attendees will have the opportunity to discuss either infrastructure, communication, and municipal partnership or recreation, trails, environment, and natural resources. The fourth event in the series will be March 21 in Sharon and the topics will be education and addressing poverty. A free dinner will kick off each event, at 6 p.m., and discussions will begin at 7 p.m.

For more information, Koloski can be reached at [email protected] or 802-225-6091.