By Jo Levasseur, as seen in the Randolph Herald: https://www.ourherald.com/articles/four-towns-make-plans-for-a-vibrant-f...
At the most recent “Our Four- Town Future” gathering, residents of Sharon, Strafford, Royalton, and Tunbridge discussed possible action steps in an effort to reach community-planning goals they’d set at earlier meetings. That meeting was held at the Sharon Academy on May 21.
Hosted by Vermont Council on Rural Development’s Community Visit Program, last Tuesday’s event was facilitated by Paul Costello and Jenna Koloski of VCRD. Community visit programs have been held in several Vermont towns, with the focus being determined by the vision needs of each town.
It was unusual to work with four towns together in such a program, Costello said, “we’ve fallen in love with every town we’ve gone to, in this case, we’ve fallen in love with four of them.”
Previous meetings were brainstorming sessions listing the needs and wants across the towns, and determining the assets in place.
At the last session, participants had voted to focus on three areas for action, and broke into committees to
outline strategic plans to:
- Develop area housing and build a senior housing community;
- Support economic development in the region; and
- Conserve natural resources and the working landscape and create a regional agricultural network.
The economic development focus group was led by Ted Brady, deputy secretary, Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. Goals of the committee include: “Collaborating with regional, state and federal partners to attract businesses to the area; develop necessary infrastructure to support business growth; and develop a fund to support local businesses and provide incentives to do business in the region.
The first step, Brady said, is to define what economic development means to the four towns.
Action steps include: defining and organizing a regional economic development committee, and framing a vision through analysis and mapping existing businesses; engaging organizations to build partnerships; and supporting and reviewing the four towns’ plans to identify common themes and opportunities.
A list of resources included the Green Mountain Economic Development Corp., Dartmounth’s Tuck School of Business, the Center for Rural Innovation, ACCD Municipal Planning Grants, TRORC, Vital Communities, Vermont Community Foundation, and USDA Rural Development.
The agricultural and natural resources group, led by Jenna Koloski, focused on: protecting working lands and natural resources; addressing climate change and improving resilience through local conservation efforts; identifying priorities for and building funding for conservation efforts; and facilitating “shared resources and equipment; supporting production, storage, processing, marketing and distribution; and evaluating “a central physical location to serve as a food hub for the region.”
Current challenges include farming viability, cost of land, development pressure, declining connection to the land, price of sustainably produced food and products, water quality, and invasives.
Action steps include to: research and identify innovative solutions; conduct an inventory; bring together members of the Conservation and Planning Commissions from the four towns in support of conservation inventory and efforts; create a regional agricultural network and education programming; and food access initiatives.
Resources to facilitate the action include Vermont Fish & Wildlife, Vermont Land Trust, the Association of Vermont Conservation Commissions, VLS Center for Agriculture and Food Systems, among others.
Led by Paul Costello, the housing group focused on developing initiatives to increase affordable housing; renovating and re-purposing existing structures; and to create senior housing. The last, it was noted, is likely to be located in Royalton, due to infrastructure and access to services.
Action steps include an inventory of assets and of allowed uses in the different towns’ plans, identifying resources and assessment of housing needs.
Resources ranged from local to federal and included: Upper Valley Habitat for Humanity, Historic Preservation tax credits, Northern Borders Regional Commission, USDA, and more.
Some projects will be simpler than others, Costello said. Possible first steps are: touring existing facilities in the region, making an inventory of potential spaces, and developing an association with non-profits.
The next steps, presenters said, are identifying chairs for task forces and handing the reins to the townspeople to move the work forward.
“What started as an affirmative response to NewVistas, with The Alliance for Vermont Communities, [and] then with support from the selectboards of the towns and the people involved in the strategic session,” Costello said in closing remarks, has produced “a powerful sense of togetherness and vision.”
The next meeting will be Tuesday, June 25 at 6:30 p.m. at The Sharon Academy.
The four towns began working together through the nonprofit Alliance for Vermont Communities, which was created in response to plans by David Hall of Utah for a 20,000-person development in the hills around the four corner borders of those towns, the four-town forum sought to preserve, stabilize, and enhance resources and needs of the area as seen through the eyes of participants. Although Hall announced last year that he was abandoning his plans because of vigorous protest, the towns felt compelled to take a serious look at how the future might be shaped by common goals.