By Layla Burke Hastings as seen in the Eagle Times:

BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. — Rockingham residents gathered at Bellows Falls Middle School last Thursday for the third Let’s Take Action forum with officials from the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) to design three task force blueprints focused on long-term improvements for the township.

Building a youth center, advancing community energy and redeveloping Bellows Falls infrastructure were the three primary actions developed into task forces in the evening of brainstorming.

A large collection of ideas were developed at the first forum, a series of several meetings meetings throughout a full day on Dec. 4 that focused on transportation, tourism, housing, mental health, youth population, the local workforce, economic development and infrastructure evaluations.

The three main topics discussed last Thursday were whittled down from an initial 20 topics by a vote from the residents and subsequent review from VCRD at the last meeting held on Jan. 8 with the help of more than 160 residents.

At the Thursday evening forum more than 100 returning residents divided into three task forces and made a new list of priorities for each task force to sort through. There to help were visiting officials from 13 different local and state agencies in addition to the VCRD, including: Community Resilience Organizations, Windham Regional Commission, USDA Rural Development, Preservation Trust of Vermont, Vermont Afterschool, Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, Efficiency Vermont, the Springfield Youth Center (The Space), Vermont Nation Reserve Council, Stevens and Associates, Southeastern Vermont Community Action and the Vermont Community Foundation.

Paul Costello, executive director of the VCRD, took on guiding the energy efficiency group while Jenna Koloski, director of planning and development at VCRD, facilitated the youth center group. Additionally, Ben Cook, an official with the USDA, collaborated with the group focused on redeveloping Bellows Falls buildings.

Each group’s first steps were to make a list of actions that need to be taken in order to meet the three goals. In the end, each group was asked to choose a chairperson.

Task force on infrastructure redevelopment

During the meeting of the redevelopment of Bellows Falls buildings task force, Cook addressed the fact that Rockingham is an “opportunity zone” on a federal level, meaning it is an area that is economically distressed but possesses enough tangible assets to attract private investors who are willing to create businesses that help improve, maintain and advance the economic infrastructure in exchange for the elements of pre-existing sustainability. A pre-existing sustainability by example in Bellows Falls could be seen as recounted by Costello who said Rockingham possessed several other examples.

Costello said Bellows Falls was the second town council he had visited in 1999 for the VCRD and the two goals met at the time were restoring the clock tower and establishing the Bellows Falls Opera House as a movie theatre.

Cook asked residents to list the buildings that were top priorities in redevelopment, ways to utilize already existing space and improve the existing resources that highlight the town’s opportunity zones.

“All these things [youth center, energy efficiency and building improvement] are really connected,” Cook said. “So just because we are talking about redevelopment of buildings doesn’t mean we can’t also look at distributing efforts and ideas around the youth center or energy efficiency. I know there is a lot of redevelopment going on [in Rockingham]. We are going to look at who is already doing things, what is already underway and then we are going to brianstorm action steps.”

The VCRD invited over a dozen different people from financial, educational, state and local financial resources to help consult and offer services to complete each task with grant money, business plans, credit opportunities and state educators who all had experience assisting in past projects statewide in past LTA town forums.

The goals for redevelopment Cook said were to look at underutilized buildings, vacant buildings and shared community spaces to use for implementing projects to leverage public and private investments. Residents brainstormed about ways to preserve, revitalize, repurpose several buildings for potentials such as a food co-op, expanded child care, craft markets, a hotel, a youth center and using the outside of buildings for murals that define the towns shared vision.

One resident said the local churches could be potential resources for afterschool programs, educational courses and meetings adding value to the already existing space in the community.

Pat Paltiel Fowler of the Bellows Falls Downtown Alliance was one of a few residents who noted that having an online resource about historical and vacant buildings would be a way to bring visibility to the local business economy.

A fellow Bellows Falls resident suggested a historic and educational building tour as a beginning to pinpoint opportunities for redevelopment.

Town Manager Wendy Harrison noted that the town’s websites were in need of improvement which was heavily supported by residents verbally during the discussion on building improvements. Harrison elaborated that website improvement would help bring more visibility to the local infrastructure of buildings, which ones were available, which were being improved, which needed improvements or tenants and overall more clearly educate viewers on community resources, the local story and infrastructure.

Residents listed potential priority buildings including Chemco or the Liberty Building, Adams Grist Mill, the former YMCA Buildings, TLR Mill Buildings, the Moore and Thompson Lower Mill, the train station and the Hotel Windham.

The task force focused on building redevelopment will be chaired by Ray Massucco.

Task force on community efficiency

The task force on advancing community energy and efficiency brain stormed ways to promote alternative energy, transportation and efficiency options and how to move toward resilience in a changing climate.

The action group looked at a community solar project, the viability and action steps in creating the groundwork for vehicle charging stations, educating public and private sectors on how to implement alternative heating options, alternative transportation and the creation of ‘green careers’ within the development of plans for energy efficiency.

Chairing the energy efficiency task force is Laurel Green.

One resident praised Green as a leader and said a top priority of the task force was to focus on weatherization.

Task force on youth center

Koloski and Chris Lievense worked with the task force focused on building a youth center in Bellows Falls.

Lievense is a Springfield High School educator who along with Tamara Stagner, co-educator from the same district, helped two classes lay the groundwork and build The Space, a new active youth center in Springfield.

Residents brainstormed what assets are needed in creating a youth driven and operated center that like the youth centers in Springfield and Brattleboro embodied a safe place for youth to lead, create, socialize but also as an entity that connects with the broader community through recreation activity such as biking, boxing, dancing, kayaking and as a result deepening community connections to the arts, civic engagement, career opportunities born out of the collective work of all three task forces.

The chair of the youth center task force is yet to be determined.

“There is some great vision going on around a potential youth center. The next steps [the task force decided] are to find a space and determine a financial agent” said Koloski.

Koloski said the VCRD will return in three weeks with a compilation of notes, based on the Feb. 13 forum, for each task force to use as a guide for implementing a concerted list of steps for each of the three action groups to use.