By Robin Smith, as seen in the Caledonian Record: http://www.caledonianrecord.com/news/hundreds-turn-out-to-brainstorm-fut...
NEWPORT CITY — Several hundred people gathered on a cold and snowy Wednesday to brainstorm about the future of Newport City.
Residents, business owners, school and political leaders and others weighed in on topics ranging from the future of the downtown with its vacant lot and the economy to health and childcare and transportation.
The city’s unique assets were many, impressing visiting experts like Kevin Wiberg, a philanthropic advisor for the Vermont Community Foundation, who spoke at a forum on the future of the downtown.
“I’m excited about Newport … The problems of the past: Let go and move forward,” Wiberg said, adding that his organization is interested in helping Newport City.
“There’s no place like this in Vermont,” said Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, who led the forum on the downtown’s future.
Costello, Wiberg and other community-minded experts from across the state came to Newport Wednesday to conduct the first part in a community visit that’s intended to narrow down priorities for action in the new year.
Future meetings in January and February are expected to bring together people ready to volunteer to help tackle the city’s top challenges, and resources in expertise and money to help make it happen.
The downtown forum was a snapshot of how the gatherings went, where aldermen and the mayor mixed with school board members, residents of all ages, current former business owners and business people, some of whom work in Newport or live here, plus leaders in non-profit organizations like North Country Hospital and other organizations.
Costello called the turnout of two dozen people in the basement meeting room of the United Church of Newport “terrific.”
Some of the day’s forums were even larger, with nearly 50 people turning out for the forum in the Goodrich Memorial Library on health and welfare in the city.
The downtown forum began with Costello asking for a list of assets that the downtown offers.
The list was wide-ranging, from its six restaurants to proximity to Lake Memphremagog and the Gateway Center and the bike path, its historic buildings, the Memphremagog Arts Council (MAC) Center and other features.
Others noted its walkability and closeness to the city’s parks, beach, Bluff Side Farm and plans for recreation there, a movie theater and Rural Community Transportation buses, socially minded churches, golf course, Wednesdays on the Waterfront concerts, historical displays in the Emory A. Hebard State Office Building and the many municipal services.
He asked people to talk about the challenges and opportunities facing the downtown.
Jay Peak Resort’s expansion means more people spend money there than coming downtown, noted school board member Wendy McGillivray.
The city has a designated downtown but the Newport City Renaissance Corp lacks staff and volunteers to aid the downtown economy, several said. Others noted that the regional chamber of commerce is not staffed and active.
Others said the city is too far away from the big urban centers like New York City.
Some wanted more parking, street benches, a downtown hotel, more retail shops or craft breweries, signs at Walmart urging people to visit historic Newport City, “parking” slips for visitors at the city dock, more events and easier border crossing for boaters and motorists.
Key opportunities included a chance to create a “maker space” for artisans in whatever new development is built in downtown, to attract a shuttle from Jay Peak Resort to the downtown and not just to Kingdom Brewery in Newport Town.
Others suggested that Gardner Park be used more in winter, with a winter market and food along with the skating rink, food vendors at the new waterfront path at Vista, or a railroad museum or Abenaki living museum.
Suggestions included creation of a 1,000-concert venue, opening up downtown to all types of transportation, including snowmobilers and bicyclists, fixing the boardwalk and taking it over from the state.
Members of the visiting team experts said the city’s downtown has many assets, but needs help with staffing of the NCRC and the chamber. Others like said volunteers need leadership and help.
Costello warned those present to think of projects that can be done with dedicated volunteers and assistance.
“It’s paralyzing and kind of depressing to make lists and not do anything,” Costello said.
People who participated will be asked to join the next community visit Jan. 17.
Ted Brady, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said Gov. Phil Scott said the state will be here to help once the Newport City community decides what it needs most.
The forums were punctuated by a free chicken and biscuit dinner that drew nearly 200 people to the municipal building gym for an hour of good food and conversation, paid for by Community National Bank.