The mission of the Vermont Council on Rural Development is to “help Vermont citizens build prosperous and resilient communities through democratic engagement, marshaling resources, and collective action.”
VCRD’s long-standing Community Visit program is core to this mission. Many times, communities create a long list of critical actions for the future, but the length of the list and the challenge of taking on tasks can feel incredibly daunting. It can be hard to narrow down the list to the top priorities in a way that involves broad community engagement, and to learn what kind of resources might be available to support a local project.
VCRD’s Community Visit program helps communities get ahead of these challenges. The program helps towns engage the full diversity of voices in the community, set common goals and directions, and access resources that will help them to take action on those goals. Provided at no cost to communities, Community Visit allows residents to become engaged in setting priorities for the future and working for their communities and with each other.
Communities come to VCRD for a variety of reasons. Maybe they have a list of ideas, but need help prioritizing what comes first. Perhaps a community has faced a recent major setback, such as the closure of an important business or school. Or maybe the community has been on a roll and is looking for what comes next. Whatever the reason for the invitation, the process always begins with an invitation from the leadership of a Vermont town or city. We only work where we are invited by local leaders, but then we work on behalf of the full community.
From there, we move through the key steps of the process, refined throughout the past 25 years, including:
— Pull together a local planning representative of the full community to identify discussion topics and build a plan to invite everyone in the community to the kickoff event.
— Hold a meeting and dinner celebration to invite the full community to brainstorm and share ideas.
— Invite the community back together to vote on ideas to set priorities.
— Build local task forces and hold a final meeting to create concrete action plans and identify resources to move forward.
— Secure local leaders for each task force and support community members as they work to implement priorities with follow-up support by VCRD staff.
Throughout this process, we go from ideas to priorities to action, and ultimately hand off to the community to take the lead, but they are not alone. At multiple points in the process, we bring with us a team of resource leaders and experts — not to tell the community what to do, but to be a resource and support as they move forward. Partners such as USDA Rural Development, Northern Borders Regional Commission, Vermont Community Foundation and others have come to see the process as somewhat of a “pipeline” towards potential community projects they can support through grant or loan funding. They join these visits with us to think with the community about critical next steps and funding that could support the work. VCRD also provides coaching, technical assistance and small seed funding following a process to help ensure success in the long term.
Most recently, we completed our 88th Community Visit in Northfield. More than 220 residents came together to brainstorm ideas for the future and, through a voting process, identified their four top priorities to move forward. New task forces have been created and are working to develop a community center; improve accessibility, walkability and pedestrian safety; create a plan for downtown development and housing; build a Norwich/Northfield partnership council.
Throughout the course of our 88 Community Visits, our staff has worked in all corners of the state, including Putney, Craftsbury, Swanton, Bennington, Vernon, Poultney, Cabot and so many others. Through each Community Visit, our staff is deeply impressed with the number of community members who join the process, share their ideas, and work together to take action for their communities.
Following every Community Visit, a report is compiled and shared with the community to provide a list of all the brainstormed ideas, action plans, contact information, resources and more to use as a reference as residents move their priorities forward. Visit vtrural.org/reports collection of past Community Visit reports can be found on our website at .
VCRD Community Visits are made possible by funding from businesses, private, philanthropic and state sources. In return, communities are asked to contribute their time, energy and skills to make sure the process is well-attended and capacity is built locally to follow through.
Diverse projects have come to life in communities across Vermont following a Community Visit. For some towns, a Community Visit creates community goodwill and celebration, such as Rutland’s Friday Night Live series, outdoor summertime events each week with live music, food and shopping opportunities. For others, it is used to leverage funds or planning resources, such as Johnson’s downtown redesign. And for others, a Community Visit provides a mechanism to talk about important issues and begin long-term work for the future, as in Killington’s four-season tourism planning or Poultney’s downtown revitalization work.
In every community, there is great power in coming together with neighbors and identifying common values and ideas. We are so lucky to live and work in a state where communities can come together in this way to take local action and move towards a collective vision for the future.
Go to vtrural.org/community-visits to learn more about Community Visits.
Alyssa Johnson is the Community Projects manager at Vermont Council on Rural Development and lives in Waterbury.
This Commentary, published 9/16/23, is part of a series for the Times-Argus/Rutland Herald and can be found on their website here: https://www.timesargus.com/opinion/perspective/vcrd-community-visits/article_987a01dc-89ec-5e06-821c-ca83cc1c99ae.html.