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Community visit comes to Newport December 13


By Joseph Gresser, as seen in the Barton Chronicle:

NEWPORT — Jenna Koloski was scurrying around Newport Tuesday taping television interviews, meeting people, handing out fliers, and putting up posters, all in hopes of gathering a large crowd for the Council on Rural Development’s first forum on Wednesday, December 13.

Ms. Koloski is community and policy manager for the council, which is conducting what it calls a community visit. That is a process intended to bring citizens of a municipality together to determine what issues most concern them and find ways to address a few of them.

So far the council has held more than 50 such meetings in towns around the state. Ms. Koloski, who has been with the council for three years, said she has spent much of that time working in Northeast Kingdom towns, including Brighton, Craftsbury, Hardwick, St. Johnsbury, and Lyndonville.

Ms. Koloski said the council goes to towns only if invited and takes no position on what is best for a community. That’s a matter for the town’s residents to determine.

The council is focused on helping to start a civil conversation and bringing people with expertise to the table to offer suggestions and aid once a community decides the direction it wishes to take.

The Newport City Council invited the Council on Rural Development earlier this year after Executive Director Paul Costello appeared before the body and asked if the city would be interested in hosting such a process.

Newport is not required to put up any cash except for the money needed to put on a big community dinner.

That dinner, which will be held between 6 and 7 p.m. on December 13, will be one of the highlights of a day full of discussions.

According to the schedule that is posted all over the city, the process will begin at 2:30 p.m. with simultaneous discussions on housing, health and wellness, and public transportation. At 4:15 the topics will be caring for children, arts, entertainment, and the outdoors, and downtown.

After dinner, at 7 p.m. the topics will be connecting the community, tourism and marketing, and economic development.

The topics were selected on November 1 by a steering committee that Ms. Koloski said was designed to represent all facets of the Newport community.

She said the steering committee also came up with ReNewport as the name for the three-part community visit process.

While community members will be the only ones engaging in the discussion process, there will be a large group of representatives from Vermont nonprofits and government entities present to listen to the conversation. Ms. Koloski said they will not speak at this point in the process, but later on some may be called in to lend expertise or even offer financial assistance.

In the second part of the process, Newport residents will consider the results of the first day’s work and decide which three issues ought to be given priority. That meeting will take place in January.

At the last meeting, in February, Newport residents will figure out what steps to take to move forward on the issues they selected. The council will bring in outside people who can offer suggestions on possible ways to proceed, Ms. Koloski said.

Although the Council on Rural Development can’t tell communities what they ought to do, Ms. Koloski said, the group has one very useful skill.

“We run a practical and businesslike meeting,” she said. “We don’t let a single person dominate the conversation. We focus on what practical steps can be taken rather than negative circular conversations.”

She recalled the visit in Vernon, where the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee, the nuclear power plant that provided jobs in the community along with the major part of the town’s tax revenues, left rifts in the fabric of the community. Ms. Koloski said she counted getting people to sit in a room together as one of the process’ successes.

In the end the community visit resulted in a plan to develop a new village center, she said.

“It was huge to give people an opportunity to bridge conversations,” Ms. Koloski said.

Another, easier meeting resulted in a decision in Craftsbury to open a community childcare center.

“Craftsbury Saplings opened this year,” Ms. Koloski said. “Isn’t that a great name?”

Even though the council can’t promise solutions to problems affecting Newport, it can try to make sure everyone in the city will hear about the December 13 meetings.

In addition to the interviews, conversations and posters, Ms. Koloski said the Goodrich Memorial Library will be given ReNewport bookmarks when they check out reading material, and every child at the Newport City Elementary School will carry a notice about the meeting home with them.