By Jennifer Hersey Cleveland, Caledonian Record. As seen on: http://caledonianrecord.com/
CRAFTSBURY COMMON -- Residents here lauded community assets while figuring out how to tackle challenges during the first stop in a process called the Community Visit by facilitators at the Council on Rural Development.
During a forum Tuesday afternoon prior to a potluck supper, residents cited the lack of cell phone service, reliable internet, affordable housing and fresh foods as major challenges under the heading housing, health and safety.
The session -- one of two taking place simultaneously -- was attended by more than 30 people at 2:30 on a weekday afternoon.
That shows that Craftsbury is already heading in the right direction, said facilitator Ben Doyle, community development specialist for USDA Rural Development.
Tom Hark, who retired from the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps and a member of the visiting team, said that while residents raised a lot of challenges, "they're imminently solvable."
The Community Visit process involved four additional forums later in the day based on topics identified by a steering community, including schools, working landscape, youth and families, and economic development.
At the next session, on October 20, residents will vote to decide which issues deserve the greatest priority.
As far as safety goes, the lack of cell service during power outages and speeders were at the fore.
"They treat the Craftsbury Road like it's the Grand Prix," said Nancy Frohwein.
"FairPoint, FairPoint is a challenge," said Kevin Gregoire.
Businesses depend upon reliable internet service, and FairPoint has not risen to the challenge, with people going without service for three weeks at a time.
"Even when it's not down, it's so slow that it's useless," said Michelle Warren.
The lack of affordable housing, in particular housing located right on the common or in the village where residents could walk to places to run errands, was raised by several people.
Jim Flint mentioned it on behalf of seniors who would benefit from a shared community as well as walkable spaces, while school board member Harry Miller said young families trying to move to Craftsbury couldn't find housing that fit their budgets.
The community needs young families to support its school, Miller said.
Warren and Flint said that the area is surrounded by fields full of fresh produce, but it is largely unaffordable to many people. That led to a conversation about the possibility of opening a food shelf or giving away excess produce from gardens.
People in need might not be willing to ask for help, but they might be willing to go into a food shelf to obtain that help, said Jeremiah McCann.
"We have a fabulous fire department -- that's something we can all agree on," said Warren. "And we're not just saying that because Walt's here."
She was referring to Walt Gutzmann of the fire department, who said it has been a challenge finding younger people available to serve due to the demands on their time.
"Some of us are getting long in the tooth," Gutzmann said.
Dave Stoner suggested several solutions, including those machines that photograph motor vehicle law breakers and a statewide policy of extending fiber to every community.
"If our small towns in Vermont can't find a way to do that, they're going to disappear," Stoner said.
Gregoire suggested a co-housing kind of development that serves middle and lower incomes and a senior center that is attached to a food pantry.
Joe Patrissi, a member of the visiting team and executive director of NEK Community Action, said a community center could address several of the needs mentioned all in one space. It could be hosted by Sterling College and staffed by volunteers.
Peggy Sapphire, a poet and resident, said she's taken her fight for cell service to several state departments but has gotten nowhere. "What do we do if nobody answers?"
"I think you're already doing it," Doyle said. "The community is exhibiting the kind of leadership that others don't.... You're really doing pretty good here."
Craftsbury is a very generous community, said Margaret Rowell. "Neighbors watch over neighbors here in a way that is extraordinary."
"It's like living in paradise, living here," said Frohwein.
"It's breathtakingly beautiful," Doyle agreed.