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Community sets action steps


MANCHESTER - Tuesday night marked the final of three meetings in Manchester's 2020 Community Visit series. The gathering brought the community back together to focus on their four defined priorities - developing a small business incubator, becoming a biking destination, attracting higher education opportunities, and redeveloping the Riverside to create a Riverwalk - within small task forces. With the help of facilitators and community chairpersons, the task forces identified their future action steps.

The evening began with an introduction from Manchester 2020 Chairperson Brian Keefe. He spoke to the nearly-full cafeteria at Burr and Burton, thanking the community for coming out and introducing the four chairpersons of the task forces.

"I promised all these chairs that they would get a lot of support from people, and that their job is not to do all the work," said Keefe of the role of the Community Chairs. "Their job is not to do all the thinking, that they are to lead the teams."

Following a short address from Paul Costello, the executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, which helped organize the "Community Visit," the crowd broke into its smaller four task forces.

John Muise, Regional Coordinator the USDA Rural Development, Peter Espenshade, the Vice President for Community Philanthropy at Vermont Community Foundation, and Richard Amore, from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, help facilitate the Riverwalk Task Force, the largest task force of the evening.

The group is being led by Bill Laberge, a local furniture maker. He has already spoken to some adjoining property owners, and while they will not be able to utilize the land on which the bowling alley sits, other surrounding property owners were "more than delighted" to work with them.

The next steps involve deciding on a governing body and ownership of the committee and the Riverwalk itself. Then, defining their design and vision, analyzing the existing structures and land, and identifying partnerships and stakeholders.

Down the hallway, the higher education task force was meeting. Costello served as community chair in Hyatt's absence. The group was fired up and passionate about their topic, throwing ideas and visions out in rapid succession.

Their main focus during the meeting was on what kind of education they wanted to provide at their potential place of higher learning. Some members thought that they should cater to what the businesses in Manchester would need, or what would best fit into the community.

However, others thought that the proposed school should pave the way for a new kind of learning in the community, to perhaps make a school that would draw others into Manchester for things that are not available in the other area schools.

They settled the discussion by proposing an action step that involved surveying the surrounding businesses and schools to determine exactly what students and business owners would want out of an institute of higher learning.

About 20 people attended the break-out session for the task force interested in forming a committee around helping develop a business incubator.

The incubator would in theory be a building somewhere in the downtown core area of Manchester, configured to allow for a variety of different types of possible small and creative businesses. Such businesses might include those broadly defined as in the arts, technology, manufacturing or food products or food services, according to a printed description of the task force circulated before the meeting.

The idea would involve providing some common, shared space and business infrastructure, solo entrepreneurs, or small groups of them, might be able to launch products and services without being crushed by excessive overhead costs - such as rent - that would throttle their initiatives before they gain market acceptance. The incubator could seed next-generation business development in downtown Manchester and attract young creative entrepreneurs and their families to the area, the document stated.

The group's discussion was led by Patricia Coates, who is the state director for congressman Peter Welch. The task force chairman is John Conte, a marketing and communications specialist with the Temblor Creative Group.

In its 90 minute discussion, the group explored the issues around decide what types of services the incubator should provide and identifying how it might connect with businesspeople who might be interested in growing their business through affiliating with such as incubator.

The group heard from Chuck Colvin of Poultney, who ran a printing company there for 40 years and then converted his building into an incubator space which has been highly successful, he said.

Next door on the second floor of the Rowland Center, another group interested in sparking interest around developing the area around becoming a center for biking also explored the issues involved in that. Their group selected Ellen Ecker Ogden as the chairwoman, and was facilitated by Greg Brown, a former director of the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.

A task force advancing Manchester as a biking center could also create a major bike path linking the downtown and the village with destination points in Manchester and other regional town centers, according to the description of the meeting handed out before the task force convened. The group developed several "action items" for further discussion at its next meeting, which included things like placing bike racks in strategic locations, developing a bike share system and other local infrastructure to support biking.

By 8 p.m., all of the Task Forces had convened back in the cafeteria to present their action plans to the other groups. Every group mentioned in their plans and discussions the idea of communicating with the other Task Forces to try and combine certain aspects of their plans. The Riverwalk group suggested connecting the Biking Destination's routes into their plans, and the Higher Education group considered discussing with the Small Business Incubators to find a correlation between what majors and what businesses they want to attract.

A final report summarizing the discussions over the course of the three month- long Community Visit is in the works and will be submitted soon, Costello said as the meeting closed.

By Mary Redstone, staff writer.