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Planning for tomorrow: Vernon Community Visit process begins


Kick-off event expected to get the ball rolling

By Chris Mays, Brattleboro Reformer. As seen here:

VERNON >> Life without the nuclear plant Vermont Yankee is going to be different.

With funding from a settlement between the state and plant owner Entergy, the Windham County Economic Development Program was created. And in the latest round of grants through the program, Vernon was awarded visits from the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

The entire Vernon community is invited to the kick-off event on Wednesday, May 18.

"It's the very first step in the process," said Jenna Whitson, VCRD community and policy manager. "The more people we have come out and the more diversity, the better the ideas are going to be and the more we're going to capture."

The Vernon Community Visit is looked at as a way for residents to get involved in looking at issues and solutions, but also planning for the future.

Vernon resident, farmer and pastor Art Miller has accepted the role as Chair of the Vernon Community Visit process.

"With Vermont Yankee closing down, it's had a significant impact on our town," he said. "Financially but also friends and neighbors had to move out, jobs lost. I think there's a bit of: 'Where do we go from here?' The plant has been such a huge part of our town for 45 years."

Vermont Yankee reduced its workforce to 136 employees, Entergy announced on May 5 after 93 employees left as the plant continues through its decommissioning stages. Economic development planners are preparing for the loss of 600 jobs due to the closure, hence WCEDP.

Miller has no agenda going into the process, he said. But he would like to see something get accomplished.

"I don't want this to just be a feel-good meeting. I want to see some action points. What those action points are, I don't know," he said. "I think some people would like to lower taxes. Everybody wants to lower taxes. That's no secret. That's not unique to Vernon. That's unique to humanity."

Sometimes Miller feels bringing industry to town is the way to go. His property was looked at as potential site for a natural gas plant before Kinder Morgan's plans for New England pipeline were put on hold.

"I don't know if that (industry) is the right solution or not," he said. "That would certainly be part of the discussion."

Quite a crew is spending the day in Vernon next Wednesday. Expected to come are Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development Secretary Pat Moulton, Jon-Michael Muise of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Haley Pero from the Office of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont Land Trust Vice President for Enterprise and Finance Nick Richardson, George Twigg from the Office of Congressman Peter Welch, Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation Executive Director Adam Grinold, Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany, Vermont Arts Council Executive Director Alex Aldrich and several other leaders.

The May 18 event, which is called the Vernon Community Visit Day, will feature six forums. Towards the middle of April, a representative group of the community met with the council to come up with topics.

From 2:30 to 4 p.m., groups will be discussing "Community Events: Art, Culture and Multi-generational Activities" and "Village Center and Gathering Place" at the Town Office. Between 4:15 and 5:45 p.m., forums at Vernon Elementary School will look at "Recreation, Trails and the River" and "Economic Development."

A free community spaghetti dinner will be held in the school's cafeteria at 6 p.m. Two different groups will then address "Youth" and "Vernon's New Identity" in the gym from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Similar to Whitson, Miller said the better the turnout, the better the input and results will be.

"This shouldn't be 10 people making a decision for the town. It's a very interactive, very involved process," he said. "The more people, hopefully the better and happier we are with the outcome."

Whitson estimates the council has worked with close to 50 towns over the last 20 years. Most recently, Guilford, St. Johnsbury, Craftsbury and Hardwick have received visits.

"Every community is different," Whitson said. "But we structure the process in a similar way in every town."

The council usually ends up with 20 to 30 pages of "dense notes" after community meetings, Whitson said. Conversations will be facilitated. Challenges aren't the only thing that's going to come up. The council wants to hear about what positive action steps can be taken to increase opportunities.

Between 15 to 20 ideas are expected to result from the meeting, according to Whitson. A vote held on June 8 will determine the top priorities for the community.

"We'll ask folks to join task forces," said Whitson.

At a final meeting in July, those groups will meet to create action plans and find resources. A team of experts and leaders will come and assist with that too, Whitson said.