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Montgomery Thrives: Infrastructure, broadband emerge as priorities

2018-11-14

As seen in the St. Albans Messenger: https://www.samessenger.com/montgomery-thrives-infrastructure-broadband-...

MONTGOMERY – Working with the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s (VCRD) Community Visit program, Montgomery residents have identified projects and goals to guide and promote growth in the community including pedestrian and traffic infrastructure, cell phone access and wastewater treatment.

The effort has been dubbed Montgomery Thrives, and town officials see it as a way to help guide Montgomery in accommodating its steady population growth while improving the town’s infrastructure for those who already call Montgomery home.

Montgomery Thrives stemmed from past attempts in the town to address more immediate needs, such as expanding vault space holding town documents or the construction of a new town hall, selectboard chair Charlie Hancock told the Messenger. When the town voted against bonds that may have funded those projects, Hancock said the town had to look differently at its priorities.

“It led us to realizing that when you pulled one string, it was connected to everything else,” Hancock said. “We decided that maybe we needed to step back and look at what does the town need in general as we look forward for the next decade, or century even.”

The selectboard opted, instead, to take a more hands off approach and allow a third party, VCRD, to help steer development through a more grassroots-oriented planning process.

Through a series of community visits and meetings facilitated by VCRD, Montgomery residents selected the three priorities mentioned above: municipal wastewater, pedestrian and traffic infrastructure, and improved broadband and cellphone access.

Hancock noted that, while VCRD community visits often turn up more community-oriented priorities like “summer concert series,” Montgomery’s priorities were all infrastructure-oriented.

“These are the bones of the community,” Hancock said. “Out of that, things could cascade.”

Those priorities were primarily ironed out in a meeting held in October, where somewhere between 150 and 200 residents voted on goals identified in a previous VCRD-led meeting. Residents whittled a list of 17 priorities to the three goals identified above.

Montgomery is organizing dedicated community task forces VCRD will connect to relevant resources and guidance.

The emphasis on broadband and cellular phone access was looked at as both an economic necessity and a safety issue.

Hancock said that the lack of steady broadband could turn away new residents that would have worked remotely from Montgomery. He also said that it could impact tourism, one of the primary economic drivers in the Montgomery area.

"We sometimes hear jokes from the tourists about how ‘It’s so great – my cellphone isn’t working so no one can bother me,’" Hancock said.

Should an emergency arise, however, that person might not be able to dial emergency services, which underscored the safety argument made by the Montgomery Thrives process.

"It was a concern for a lot of residents," said Alissa Hardy, the chair of Montgomery’s planning commission and the town official coordinating and chairing Montgomery Thrives.

Currently, wastewater needs in Montgomery are largely served by septic tanks, wastewater systems costing thousands of dollars that can limit business expansion in places like Montgomery Center, the town’s major crossroads.

"If we want to see growth, we need to have capacity," Hancock said.

He added that there were environmental concerns the town would like to head off. While there currently aren’t any reports of significant pollution in the Trout River, a nationally recognized Wild and Scenic River, Hancock said residents didn’t want to risk future pollution.

"The last thing we want to do is have water quality problems," Hancock said.

"I think the town really wanted to be addressing it now," Hardy confirmed.

Finally, residents agreed to prioritize pedestrian infrastructure in Montgomery, a town that, Hardy jested, "has no crosswalks." Those needs largely stem from concerns over safety as Montgomery’s population continues to grow and commercial traffic continues to increase through its village centers.

The town could see everything from improved lighting, parking and sidewalks to a walking path connecting Montgomery Center and its village.

For both Hancock and Hardy, there is a noticeable overlap between the goals, as well. Hardy used the example of municipal wastewater and streetscaping, where piping would have to be installed under whatever streetscape work the town pursues.

"They all make sense together," Hardy said.

In 2013, the Vermont Agency of Commerce estimated Montgomery would experience somewhere between 20 and 30 percent growth in population. New businesses have followed that growth, including a new café, bike shop and even the formal debut of the Montgomery Center for the Arts.

Hardy insisted that these improvements weren’t only in anticipation of a formal "explosion" in Montgomery. Much of the planning has been driven by Montgomery’s residents, who were also concerned about "keeping what makes Montgomery, Montgomery."

"There was also the conversation about… looking out for who’s already here and staying true to Montgomery," Hardy said.

Still, she added that it was inspiring to see so many Montgomery residents looking concretely at the town’s future.

"It was really special seeing people come together and have that kind of focused conversation," Hardy said. "For this being a small town, seeing that many people was really encouraging."

Hancock shared Hardy’s excitement, despite acknowledging that achieving Montgomery Thrives’s goals would require a significant commitment from the town in the form of work and finances.

"I’m really excited to see things going forward," Hancock said. "These really are the building blocks for Montgomery’s future."

The next community meeting for Montgomery Thrives is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 29 at Montgomery’s town school. There, VCRD will be hosting a team of state, federal and nonprofit leaders to help foster connections between Montgomery Thrives’s individual task forces and resources that could, ultimately, help meet Montgomery Thrives’s more ambitious goals.