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ReNewport narrows projects down to four

2018-01-24

By Joseph Gresser, as seen in the Barton Chronicle 1/24/18: https://bartonchronicle.com/renewport-narrows-projects-four-2/

NEWPORT — Things did not go exactly as planned at the second reNewport meeting. The gathering on January 17 drew a good crowd of around 100 people. The discussions of potential directions for civic engagement were thoughtful and respectful. Voting to narrow down the 17 potential projects suggested at the first reNewport convocation in December to eight contenders went smoothly. The surprise came when officials from the Vermont Council on Rural Development returned to the gym in the Newport Municipal Building after retiring to tabulate the second round of voting. Instead of the expected three final projects, there were four.

Council on Rural Development Director Paul Costello explained the result. Louise Bonvechio, appointed that night to chair the reNewport effort, decided one of the topics had nearly as many votes as the winners and was important enough to be included in the work. Mr. Costello unveiled the four winners: expand community events and celebrations, enhance and market the Newport tourism experience, support and attract businesses and entrepreneurs, and improve and coordinate health and wellness services as well as early childhood education.

Ms. Bonvechio was chosen to chair the reNewport process by Mr. Costello and his associates. He announced her selection at the beginning of the meeting, and said the council has found it important to have a local person to iron out disagreements and encourage communication between groups in a town. After the meeting Mr. Costello said he and others from the council were looking for someone to assume the role and wanted to find a person with the proper leadership skills, but without a political agenda. He said his group asked a large number of people from a wide variety of backgrounds to suggest a person to fill the job and settled on Ms. Bonvechio. She works as chief financial officer for Community National Bank and has volunteered for organizations in the community.

Ms. Bonvechio said she currently presides over the Rural Edge board of directors, is treasurer of the Goodrich Memorial Library, and serves on the regional advisory board for the North Country Career Center. She grew up in Westfield and has worked for Community National for 25 years. “I’ve done a lot of community service,” Ms. Bonvechio said. “But this is a shift in what I’ve been doing.” Her decision came about two hours into a two-and-a-half-hour long meeting. Mr. Costello and Jenna Koloski, the council’s community and policy manager, arrived early to put up large sheets each labeled with one of the “ideas and opportunities identified by Town Forums,” as a more detailed handout said.

In addition to the four ideas eventually chosen by the meeting, there were sheets that said “improve community communications and connection,” “create educational and career training options,” “improve public transportation,” “improve downtown traffic and pedestrian safety,” “develop a community center,” “expand bike tourism and improve bike-ability,” “improve housing in Newport,” “develop a deeper connection with Quebec partners and visitors,” “address substance abuse,” “improve the waterfront and lake access,” “redevelop Bluffside Farm,” “revitalize downtown Newport,” “attract a hotel to Newport,” and “start a Newport mentorship program.”

When members of the crowd had finished greeting each other Mr. Costello reminded the group of what his organization does and doesn’t do. “We don’t have power,” he began. “We don’t know what’s good for Newport. We don’t think we’re better than the local folks. We’re conveners.” The Newport process was the sixtieth organized by the Council for Rural Development, he said. “We meet in the spirt of collective activity,” Mr. Costello said. “Resources go to communities that are ready for them.” He went on to praise the city. “You’ve got to know this is one of the most beautiful places in Vermont,” said Mr. Costello, who listed some of Newport’s assets, including Lake Memphremagog, proximity to the Canadian border, the working landscape that surrounds the city, and “great people.” He urged his audience to set its sights high and reminded them “the biggest challenge in democracy is figuring out how to work together to get things done and to see the best in people.”

Ms. Koloski told those gathered that they should think about which idea they can put their energy toward. “None of these are bad ideas,” Mr. Costello said. “We’re not voting anything off the wall. The final report will list all these ideas. We’re moving from ideas to action.”

The decision made by Newport residents will affect the composition of the leadership team the council will bring to the final meeting of the process on February 21, he said. “We’re not building an official town plan,” Mr. Costello reminded those in attendance. Instead the choices should be the answer to the questions “what do I want to see for the long-term good of Newport,” and “what do you see for the future.” He encouraged Newport’s citizens to create a broad vision of “a community that builds bridges, not fences.” The council members then opened the floor for community members to share their visions for a better Newport. Laurie Grimm said she would like the city to become a place high school and college students would want to return to and where they could find good paying jobs. Another resident wished the city’s residents would be comfortable enough not to need drugs. A regional economy supportive of the needs of adults and children is the desire expressed by Colleen Moore de Ortiz. Bruce James said he wants to see Newport become a destination sought out by tourists. “I’d like this to be a place where we can support each other,” said Anne Chiarello. “Where everyone knows everyone who wants to be known, and where when people need help we can be there for them.” One woman told the group she had left and come back to Newport three times. “I want this to be a place for kids to come back to,” she said, “but we have to give them a reason to stay.”

Mr. Costello then asked if anyone thought an important idea had been missed at the earlier meeting. Ms. Moore de Ortiz spoke up to say she thinks providing early childhood education is an important task for city residents. Many women cannot go to work for lack of childcare or, if they do work, find their earnings just pay for providing care for their children. She proposed including her concern with health and wellness, a suggestion that drew no opposition.

Mr. Costello said it was nearing time to vote. The council’s process called for cutting the number of ideas under active consideration from 17 to eight in the first round of voting. He said, “When I was on the school board in my town, the superintendent once said, ‘If we have a list of 20 things we want to do, we’re guaranteed to fail at all of them.” Mr. Costello said the choices should not be abstract ideas, but things people in the community can do for themselves. “You’re not voting for ideas for Montpelier to work on,” he said. He then called for volunteers to read the title of each idea and the accompanying explanatory text. After that was done, Mr. Costello asked for champions to speak on behalf of ideas they found most important. He asked those who wished to push an idea to consider if it is actionable, if it’s already being addressed, and “is it within your power?” The choices, he suggested, ought to be “what’s most doable and what’s most impactful.”

Diane Peel said she favored creating a community center for art and recreation. “It’s doable,” she told the group, “it just takes hard work.” Others spoke up for a better transportation system to bring visitors to Newport and to serve those who cannot afford private cars. Mayor Paul Monette spoke on behalf of small businesses, which he said are vital to the city’s economy. Mary Pat Goulding, the president of the Memphremagog Watershed Association, pushed for improving the waterfront. Ms. Moore de Ortiz argued in favor of early childcare education and claimed every dollar spent results in seven to nine dollars of eventual benefit. Steve Wright, who manages Jay Peak, cited his own statistics as he urged people to support an effort to market Newport to tourists. Jay Peak, he said, gets a million visitors a year. With a good promotional effort, Mr. Wright said, the city might be able to get 5 or 10 percent of those people to visit Newport. That would be an additional 50,000 to 100,000 visitors a year. City Council President John Wilson agreed with Mr. Monette. “We need to attract businesses and entrepreneurs,” he said. “We need businesses to put people to work.”

Once the arguments were made, each participant was given an envelope full of orange and blue stick-on dots. The orange dots were worth three points, the blue one. Each person could distribute their dots in any way they saw fit. After a great deal of hustle and bustle the voting ended and Mr. Costello and his team bore the sheets off to the counting room. He returned to announce that improving public transportation, enhancing Newport tourism, developing a community center, supporting businesses, expanding community events, improving the waterfront, revitalizing the downtown, and improving health and wellness had garnered enough votes to survive the first winnowing.

After revealing the top vote getters, Mr. Costello took a bit more time to speak about community. “This is not just about the economy,” he said. “It’s really about leadership. A real leader can listen to ten different people talking and know they are all telling the truth. They are telling a facet of the truth.”

After a bit more discussion on the finalists, citizens received a second envelope, this with red and green dots. They cast their ballots and waited for the final three to be chosen. While they waited groups of residents gathered to talk, and some walked toward a table weighed down with refreshments at the back of the room. As the results were revealed, council officials placed sign-up sheets on another table. These were for people who wished to work to bring the chosen ideas to fruition.

The table began attracting people even before the meeting concluded. Mr. Costello had some closing words, though. He noted the results of the voting and promised to bring experts in marketing from around the state along with people skilled in fields related to the other items on the city’s to-do list. Although many ideas were set aside, Mr. Costello said nothing should stop those who believe in them from moving forward to make them real.

As people left the hall and the people from the Council on Rural Development began packing up, Ms. Bonvechio took time to speak with a curious onlooker. She acknowledged using her position to add the fourth item to the final list. It had a great deal of support and was doable, Ms. Bonvechio said, so it made sense to make it a final choice. The new chair of reNewport then showed her skills include diplomacy. When asked which was the item she put on the final list, Ms. Bonvechio gently declined to answer.