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Manchester Community Visit


There was so much to reflect on following last week's Community Visit organized by a local group of community leaders and the Vermont Council on Rural Development that it's hard to know where to start.

So we'll start from the beginning. First, the members of the local steering committee, the town's leadership - John O'Keefe, Pauline Moore and Lee Krohn - and Brian Keefe, who served as the chairman of the event, deserve much credit for organizing it and developing the agenda and discussion topics. The Vermont Council on Rural Development, obviously, led by Paul Costello, its executive director, does as well, for marshaling a truly impressive list of state leaders to lead and participate in the series of nine forums on the several topics the Visit focused on. Forums such as these can go one of two ways - long talkathons that meander around an issue and result in much earnest conversation, but little apparent action afterwards; or earnest, engaged discussion that not only identifies and analyzes a question, but comes up with a realistic, workable strategy for dealing with it and nudging it forward towards a better place.

That is the next step, and one that will come into sharper focus next April 11, when members of the resource team brought together by the Council on Rural Development return for the first of two follow up meetings to discuss findings and action plans.

The timing of this Community Visit was not coincidental to the wrapping up of the long-deferred Roundabout project, but it certainly is the perfect time for the town and its residents to attempt to look ahead and decide what sort of future we want for the community. To some extent, of course, the future is determined here, as elsewhere, by factors and forces outside of human control - think economic downturn and global warming - but to a large degree, ordinary people, especially in a small town, can have a big impact on a community's character. It's worth trying to organize that energy for outcomes that give private individuals the leeway to pursue personal and entrepreneurial goals within a public framework that seeks to uplift everyone's quality of life.

Manchester has its unique, or at least unusual, qualities. On the one hand it's a basic Vermont town, where some families have been here for generations. Agriculture may no longer be the main driver of the local economy, but the land is still a big part of our collective psyche. But we also have the legacy of a destination spot for visitors and tourists, and that has brought not only a level of material wealth but also a far-reaching arts and cultural scene that is unusual for a town of slightly more than 4,000 people. We also have a remarkable array of educational institutions up through the secondary school level that are a real draw and an economic driver in their own right. On that note, several participants in some of the sessions spoke of how much of an asset it would be to add to that line-up by having some sort of satellite campus of a community college - or any type of post-secondary school. We'd agree. The hard part is making it workable by attracting enough students. The idea has surfaced before, and what takes it out of the realm of sheer fantasy is the fact that the facilities for such an experiment actually exist already. Why should local schools sit idle and relatively unused during evening hours or over the summer? With some creative thinking, and maybe the integration with online learning - the latest rage in education circles - it's not complete and utter fantasy.

There's a connection between that and another major theme that pervaded several of the discussion groups - attracting a younger demographic set than is currently here. Whether it's the lack of good-paying jobs, or the absence of an active social scene after dark, or a combination of the two, it would certainly be a good thing for Manchester to be an attractive locale for young professionals in their 20's and 30's who perceive Manchester as a good place to live and work. Some already do. What steps the community as a whole can do to make that occur to a larger extent is less clear. Whether it's essential, or something that would be nice, is another question. That may simply be one of those osmotic processes that feeds off of something that's already present, like access to outdoor recreation.

Ultimately, all roads lead to economic vitality as the lubricant to make much of this happen, and many good building blocks are already in place. Real estate values, tax rates and housing costs will all play important roles in determining the quality of life in Manchester. One other factor that deserves some emphasis under the heading of what makes Manchester different is the presence of some large philanthropic money that has paid and paved the way for many civic improvements that other communities could only wish for. But money doesn't grow on trees either, and that philanthropic wealth will rise and fall with events far from the town's boundaries, as well as the worthiness of the proposed purposes for it. Meanwhile, let's appreciate what we have.

While there was a decent cross-section of the community that made it to one or more of the nine sessions, there were of course many who couldn't make it owing to work commitments, or simple lack of interest. It would have been good to hear from more folks who make up the basic nine-to-five workforce, the blue-collar people, the ones who don't tend to show up in news stories. Getting somewhere between five and 10 percent of the community to take part in the Community Visit is no mean feat - that's better than your typical Town Meeting. But going forward, hopefully there will be more voices yet to be heard from when it comes to shaping Manchester's future.

Published in the Manchester Journal.