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How rural development helps town to town

2019-10-02

by Joseph Gresser as seen in The Chronicle: https://bartonchronicle.com/

GREENSBORO — Community leaders who attended the annual meeting of the Northeastern Vermont Development Association (NVDA), held at the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro on September 26, heard Paul Costello of the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) explain his organization’s work.

The council is authorized by the federal Farm Bill to help local people find solutions to critical problems.

“We are charged to work town to town,” he said. “We work with about 70 communities with full three- to six-month-long processes. We also have worked with about 140 or 150 towns on broadband issues. We brought Front Porch Forum to every town in the state of Vermont.

We’ve done major digital economy projects up here in the Kingdom and elsewhere. We’ve helped build wifi zones, we’ve helped build town websites, and we’re always changing and always evolving to suit the needs of our communities.”

Mr. Costello said the council also is required to “contribute in a balanced, nonpartisan way to public policy.”

To that end, he said the organization’s board is made up of heads of federal agencies, and members of the Governor’s cabinet, as well as other state leaders.

“We’re all about patriotism for a local place,” Mr. Costello said. “We’re all about democracy, we’re all about pride in Vermont and supporting Vermont communities.”

At the beginning of his talk, Mr. Costello took a moment to mention one of his longtime board members, Paul Bruhn, who founded the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

Mr. Bruhn was, he said, “a great hero of Vermont. He put his entire life, 24-seven, into the service of rural communities.

He touched every town in the Kingdom one way and another, every church redevelopment, every little store that was in trouble.

When Newport’s got challenges, when Barton’s looking at a redevelopment project, Paul’s there and he’s leveraging and he’s helping people make deals.”

Mr. Costello said the council is invited to towns that seek help finding ways for local people to address problems or concerns.

“We don’t think we know better than those communities, we don’t come into a community and think we know what’s good for them,” he said.

Representatives of the council visit to ask townspeople: “What do you stand for? What are the fundamental challenges you face, and how are those challenges also opportunities?” Mr. Costello said.

He said the council isn’t looking for the list of 20 problems the select board has to deal with over the course of a year, or what things people want the federal government or someone else to solve for them.

Instead, Mr. Costello said, his organization asks: “What are the three or four things that, as a community, if you lined up together, and you put your backs together and you built a collective spear point of activity, you would have the power to make significant change?”

The council has worked in a number of towns in the Northeast Kingdom, Mr. Costello said.

Among the places it has made what it calls community visits was Burke, which, he said, has had such success with using outdoor recreation as an economic driver it has nearly overwhelmed the infrastructure needed to support its residents and visitors.

Other recent visits have taken place in Newport, Craftsbury, and currently Greensboro.

Mr. Costello said the results of the visits are not always what one might expect going into a town.

He cited Montgomery as an example of a town in which community discussions took a turn he did not see coming.

Mr. Costello described the town as one “where they have Jay up on the hill, and a vast stretch of woods that connect the two” with an “outdoor recreation bridge” of back country skiing and mountain biking.

Montgomery, he said, has a workforce of young people who can’t live up at Jay.

“It’s a kind of party town” with a lot of bars where a lot of fun happens, Mr. Costello said.

During the community visit the young members of the community were deeply engaged in considering the future of their town, he said.

In the end those participating in the process decided they didn’t need to have more events or an economic development committee.

Mr. Costello told the group the town concluded, “We’re not ready for housing because we don’t have a sewer. And so they lined up to build a sewer system. And they geared up together to work over a course of years, on the very unsexy job of developing a sewer system, working with the bureaucracy, raising the money, because they had the wisdom to know that was going to be the long term lever point.”

In Rutland, on the other hand, townspeople wanted to first do something fun as a community.

“They had this reputation of being in a rut.

The young people called Rutland, Rut Vegas. And it was a really sad joke, because there was nothing for them to do,” Mr. Costello recalled.

During the community visit process city residents decided they had to attract more young people and create something for themselves that was fun. From there they designed Friday Night Live, which turned out to be the biggest party in Rutland County in 20 years or more.

“Thousands and thousands of people go to a shut-down street, they have bands of all sorts and all kinds of other events,” Mr. Costello said.

City stores see weekly sales on that night amount to as much as their earnings for the rest of the week.

“It’s a fascinating thing, how fun and events and food on the green and, sometimes, beer help make something really dynamic,” he said.

Mr. Costello said the often discussed demographic problems faced by the state are not unique.

“We hear a lot of bad news about Vermont in terms of the loss of youth, and the challenges of the aging population,” he said. “You know this is a demographic problem that is not just Vermont. If you cut a shape of Vermont, and you put it in rural Kansas, or rural Illinois, and you gathered up those statistics, you find they are a lot worse.”

The difference is the cities young people move to are in those Midwest states, so their overall statistics hide losses in more rural areas.

Vermont is the second most rural state in the nation, so changes show up quickly, he said.

Without minimizing the challenges faced by Vermont, he said the council’s community visits reveal great connectivity among Vermonters.

Mr. Costello said he brought his 12-year-old granddaughter with him to a conference this summer. She studied Africa in school and became aware of the difficulty many communities have in getting pure water.

With her friends, he said, she organized a fund-raising campaign to help build a water well in Somalia. Together the girls raised about

$5,000, half the cost of a well, and sent it to the organization that is building wells.

Mr. Costello said he introduced his granddaughter at the meeting and told her story. After she stood up and was applauded he finished by saying, “She’s not special.”

A lot of kids are doing stuff like that. It’s what people do now,” he said. “When you think about our communities, you think about the fact that, people are constantly doing positive things for their communities. We see it everywhere we go. It’s the fabric of living democracy — neighborliness, concern and care for the future. We also see tremendous collective wisdom.”

Mr. Costello said he has come to believe that the “interface between humanity and our environment, is our economy. Entrepreneurs in that economy get paid to solve problems, provide services, and answer problems.”

Many young people who hear news about problems that may place their future in danger and absorb more violent films and games than any previous generation are frightened of what the coming years may hold, Mr. Costello said.

He said he woke one day to realize “That’s not tenable. We have to be the adults in the room, we have to start a different conversation with our children. We have to tell our children that we have the world under control, that we’re leading, that we’re going to be successful, that we’re going to work together.

“We don’t get to choose the challenges we face. But it’s the challenges we face that make our lives meaningful. They give us collective purpose.”