BY SCOTT BEAVERS, as seen in the Randolph Herald:

The towns of Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge are working together with the Vermont Council of Rural Development (VCRD) to develop a plan to help shape the future of the towns and region. The VCRD was invited by the four towns’ selectboards to facilitate and work on this project on behalf of the region.

Over the last couple months, a meeting was held in each town, where a total of about 400 people attended and shared their insight, ideas, desires, and thoughts on what they’d like to see for the future of their town, including topics such as economic vitality, housing, senior services, addressing poverty, agriculture and forestry, infrastructure, communications, attracting new residents, recreation and more. This was the first step of the project, known as “Our 4-Town Future.”

Last Thursday, April 25, a collective meeting held at the Tunbridge Central School as step two in the “Our 4-Town Future” project was attended by about 110 people from the four towns.

The meeting was moderated by Paul Costello, executive director of the VCRD and Jenna Koloski, the VCRD’s community and policy manager, who kept the two-and-a-half hour discussion moving along covering a lot of material.

The main goal of this meeting was to vote on community priorities. The presenters began by giving an overview of what transpired at the last public meetings, as well as at internal meetings and discussions, and then asked attendees to offer what they saw as their vision for the future of the region. A couple dozen people expressed their views and desires about what they think is most important.

The “step one” meetings generated a plethora of ideas and input of what people feel are the assets, opportunities, and challenges of the region, including:

  • Economic and cultural vitality;
  • Affordable housing and senior living;
  • Attracting and supporting young residents and families;
  • Agriculture and forestry;
  • Infrastructure, communication, and municipal partnerships;
  • Recreation, trails, environment and natural resources;
  • Education; and
  • Poverty.

Input was also gathered from a youth forum with Sharon Academy students and VCRD in March. All input and information were collected and put into appropriate categories, with the VCRD creating a 21-page document that included all of the thoughts and ideas that came out of the discussions.

From this, a list of 24 topics was created that were the ideas for potential action and tasks to be reviewed and prioritized for the project.

Costello reviewed the 24 items, asking people to “champion” the items they felt were most important. Many people stood up and made their case as to which topic(s) they felt should be ultimately included in the project, as action items moving forward.

Action Items

The group was to vote for the items they felt were most important and would like to see as action items to be worked on. The top eight would make it to the next “round,” which would ultimately be culled to the top-three items.

Once all the public input was finished, attendees were asked to vote. The eight items that got the most votes were: develop area housing; expand and coordinate outdoor recreation and trails; conserve the working landscape and natural resources; build a senior housing facility; attract and support young residents and families; create a regional agricultural network; expand alternative energy; and support economic development in the region.

A motion was made for the second time in the evening to consolidate “develop area housing” and “build a senior housing facility” into one item. The first vote on this motion did not pass, but the second did and the two items were combined into one.

Now there were technically seven items to be voted on, of which the top three would become the action items that the region would work on together. When the final vote took place, there were two winners and a tie for the third.

“Support economic development in the region” and “housing” got the most votes; then “conserve the working landscape and natural resources” and “create a regional agricultural network” tied with the same number of votes.

Attendees were asked whether they wanted the two items to be worked on individually, or if the items should be combined and worked on as one project. The majority clearly wanted to the two items to be combined as one.

It was noted that, interestingly, the final three items to be worked on by the region are really made up of what were five items at the beginning of the evening.

What’s Next?

The next step in the process is for a task force to be created for each of the three items that will begin working on the project.

Signup sheets were being filled out as people left the meeting. Closing remarks were made and everyone was thanked for participating. Throughout the evening, a common idea that kept being mentioned was collaboration and it was clear that there is a good amount of energy and desire for residents to reach beyond their town and work with others in the region.

Costello mentioned that the VCRD has worked on projects like this in about 70 locations throughout the state and seen a huge amount of success in many regions.

The next meeting in this series will be Tuesday, May 21 at 6:30 p.m. at the Sharon Academy. All residents of the four towns are encouraged to attend. For more information, contact local selectboards or visit community-visits.