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Passion, energy at VCRD visit: Seventy gather, begin to build social capital


By MATTHEW PREEDOM, St. Albans Messenger:

SWANTON — The smiles were wide and the energy high Wednesday at the third and final community visit from the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD). Roughly 70 people were in attendance at the event and they were not shy about applauding the leaders who brought the VCRD to town and the community members who stepped up to chair five different task forces.

Molly Lambert who was one of the team members who kicked off the Swanton Enhancement Project months ago and successfully lobbied the town and village governments to apply for the visit, began the meeting with a few inspiring words. Referring to political scientist and writer Robert Putnam, she said: “A rich community is not one that is individually or collectively financially wealthy; it is a community that has engaged citizenry. This is called social capital and it has real value. Tonight, by coming here and volunteering to work on these committees, you are building social capital.

“So before the first flower is planted in the park, the first building is purchased and rehabilitated, and before the first barn quilt goes up this summer, we are building social capital. We live in a very rich community and we need to congratulate each other for that. We have an active and engaged citizenry. It is a very special thing to have people come together and be willing to work side by side with neighbors and strangers to build our community.”

The Task Forces

At the last VCRD visit in March, Swanton community members identified their top five priorities for improving their community. Economic development, the arts, outdoor recreation, traffic, and tackling substance abuse topped the list and five task forces were established to tackle these challenges. The Economic Development Group put together an extensive list of initiatives on which they wanted to get started. Chaired by Terri O’Shea, the group’s goal is to spark economic development in Swanton and create new jobs by coordinating and employing new resources.

There are many bodies that coordinate economic development for particular industries or for the region, but there are no Swantonspecific initiatives.

The first steps O’Shea’s team identified were to learn from other economic development teams in St. Albans, Johnson, and Cambridge and identify what current businesses need in order to become successful and grow. They will also explore ways to recruit new businesses to Swanton and to draw traffic off of the interstate to help drive commerce in the village center.

Said Chris Leach, a village trustee: “we have all of the resources that business need to be successful. We need to let business know what is available and how to get the help they need.”

The newly formed Swanton Arts Council, chaired by Judy Paxman and Kris Daignault, is planning monthly events to highlight the artist community in Swanton.

Toward that end, they are preparing an “asset map” to aggregate information about the arts so that community members know what is available and what events are happening. The goal, Paxman said, is to create a brand identity for the Arts Council and the town so that people can see what a vibrant community exists in Swanton.

The outdoor recreation task force outlined a vision to increase river access and bike-ability highlighted by an annual celebration of the Missisquoi River and the community. Team cochair Ron Kilburn pointed out that Swanton is a rare community because “the points of access to the river are already owned by either the town or the state, so we don’t have to convince a private landowner to grant access. Our challenge is to figure out the best way to use those resources.”

A task force set up to address substance abuse, led by Kathy Lavoie looks to learn from community groups that have already had success. “We know that in order to have success, we have to focus on prevention, helping people in the recovery stage, and community building,” Lavoie said.

“The first step is to create a recovery center in Swanton so that people trying to rebuild their lives have a safe place to go. In addition, we want to help support the Take-Back program to ensure that unused prescription drugs are safely disposed of at a local pharmacy or drop-off center. We’ll also be taking a trip to Rutland to talk with Project Vision to learn about how they are combating substance abuse in their community. Really, it’s about our community and finding leaders in every neighborhood to help tie the community together to fight this issue.”

Town selectman Joel Clark has volunteered to lead the committee on traffic, parking, and walkability issues. One topic his group identified was that the downtown area hasn’t had a comprehensive traffic and walking study done in more than a decade. They identified low-hanging fruit, such as an AARP walking audit to help determine the best ways to improve safety for walkers and increasing signage and road markers to help vehicles and pedestrians know where they need to be.

Work to be done

VCRD facilitator Paul Costello closed the meeting by noting that Swanton has taken a vital first step in moving forward.

“There are a lot of towns that float around and don’t know where they’re going,” he said. “The towns that line up and say this is what we stand for, this is what we’re going to accomplish and this is how we’re going to do it – those towns are the ones that win. We at VCRD have been incredibly impressed with Swanton – the assets the beauty the gateway that Swanton is, but most of all the people who are so enthusiastic for this project.”

A lot of work has gone into the Swanton Enhancement Project already, but Costello reminded everyone that it is only the first step in a long process of community improvement.

“This is a community that has incredible energy and passion for its town. You’ve finished the very first step and identified a lot of goals and objectives and it will probably take you the rest of your lives to check them all off. We know that community development is never done; we know that this is where the rubber meets the road and where the work really begins. We are here to help provide you with the information and connect you with the resources Swanton needs to be successful. What has happened the last few months is democracy at work, this is what makes Vermont a great place to live.”

Steering committee member Hank Lambert commented after the meeting: “This is all very exciting, and now the work begins. We have a lot of bold visions that began in these tasks forces, so now its time to take this energy and put our dreams into action.”