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Rockingham future forum echoes statewide challenges

2019-12-08

By Kevin O'Connor, as seen in vtdigger.org: https://vtdigger.org/2019/12/08/rockingham-future-forum-echoes-statewide...

ROCKINGHAM — The community conversation was billed as “Attracting and Retaining Young People.” But the older resident in work jeans and boots came to discuss what could keep hold of him, too.

“Our taxes are absolutely nuts,” he said. “And I’ve watched the tourists come in and drive right on.”

The man, boasting a century of town family ties, confessed only one thing stopped him from leaving.

“There’s so much potential,” he said.

The town of Rockingham and its villages of Bellows Falls and Saxtons River want to tap that. That’s why the municipality is the latest of more than 70 in the state to consider its future with the help of a Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) planning program.

Several dozen residents have launched the three-month process by generating a list of local assets — starting with the fact that the small town is a small town.

“I just couldn’t take the ambient stress of the city,” said one seventh-generation Vermonter who recently relocated from Boston. “It’s so nice to be back to a place where people make eye contact with you.”

Others cited a comparatively better cost of living, a downtown with a good hardware store and bookshop, bus and train service, outdoor recreation and a municipal-run movie house with $5 general admission.

“Unfortunately it’s only showing ‘Frozen 2’ from now until eternity,” one woman lamented.

That’s not the only problem. Some residents pointed to low wages and a lack of enough fulfilling jobs.

“My grandchildren want to come back,” one woman said, “but their question is, ‘What am I going to do?’”

Others want more affordable housing.

“The grand list has to go up and you have to bring people’s taxes way down,” one man said.

Still others need child care.

“Especially for 2 years old and younger,” said a mother who bounced a toddler in her arms.

With support from the nonprofit nonpartisan VCRD, locals will work with state, federal, nonprofit and philanthropic experts throughout the winter to decide and develop common goals.

“We believe strongly in the power of local leadership and in engaging the full voice of the community,” VCRD staffer Jenna Koloski said.

Residents will meet again Jan. 8 at 6:30 p.m. at a place to be determined to set priorities and sign up for task forces, then once more in February to finalize action plans.

Brainstorming so far has sparked such suggestions as welcoming hemp farmers and asylum seekers, creating construction jobs by flipping Victorian houses into modern-day apartments, and improving internet and cellphone service.

VCRD has conducted such conversations statewide for two decades.

“Every town is different, but you see similar themes,” Koloski said. “There’s interest in ‘What do we need?’ — economic revitalization, for example, or walkability and bike-ability — and what’s the infrastructure to accomplish that. There’s also a lot of interest in community connection.”

Rockingham conducted an earlier conversation in 1998 that led to several downtown revitalization and housing projects. Local leaders hope another dialogue will work again.

“This is a great opportunity to develop a shared vision,” Municipal Manager Wendy Harrison said. “The idea is to have at least one project that has visible results, not just a plan that goes on the shelf.”