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Vermont town wrestles the cycle of revisiting the same challenges

2020-01-09

By Kevin O'Connor as seen in vtdigger.org: https://vtdigger.org/2020/01/09/vermont-town-wrestles-the-cycle-of-revis...

ROCKINGHAM — More than 100 residents buzzed as they worked to whittle down two-dozen possibilities into three plans for action: Should the town improve internet and cellphone service? Recruit new residents? Expand an alphabet of opportunities, starting with arts, bike lanes and child care?

A local who recalled a similar session two decades ago had another thought.

“It’s as though everyone is in a time warp … nothing has changed.”

The town of Rockingham and its villages of Bellows Falls and Saxtons River are the latest of more than 70 communities in the state brainstorming the future with the help of a Vermont Council on Rural Development planning program.

For many, the three-month process of developing common goals is a welcome opportunity to reboot. But for some, it’s a weary repeat of countless meetings held in the past quarter-century.

Back when the VCRD hosted its first forum here in 1998, residents drafted a wish list that called for improving the community’s image, revitalizing its downtown, providing more affordable housing and educational and after-school opportunities, boosting communication and better competing with the lack of a sales tax in neighboring New Hampshire.

Meeting again this month, townspeople came up with a revised list that looked similar, with a focus on housing, education, public transportation and business and building redevelopment.

Although longtimers are frustrated certain issues keep cropping up, VCRD leaders said many of the problems weren’t within local control.

“There is a set of strategic challenges — be it aging infrastructure or the decline of the dairy economy — that’s statewide,” VCRD executive director Paul Costello said.

But other issues are specific to a community and must be determined and dealt with on an ongoing basis.

“It’s not be-all and end-all — you need to bring a new generation of leadership in all the time,” Costello said. “We’ve seen towns build community centers, redo their roads, build volunteer programs to connect with their youth. There’s no grand vision for rural America except the one we make.”

Residents who attended an introductory program in December offered two-dozen suggestions for improvements. A follow-up meeting this month served as the planning equivalent of a pageant, with “action idea” quarterfinalists vying to be eight semifinalists and, ultimately, one of three winners.

“There are a lot of themes we see across communities, including attracting new residents, retaining youth and supporting business and the workforce,” VCRD staffer Jenna Koloski said.

Rockingham also has voiced several concerns specific to itself.

“Other communities have focused on infrastructure, water and sewer, broadband and cell service,” Koloski said. “This town seems to be at a point where there are a lot of different pockets and people are interested in coming together.”

Rockingham has decided to do so by tackling the issues of advancing energy efficiency, creating a youth center and redeveloping buildings in its central village of Bellows Falls. Residents will discuss the next steps Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at Bellows Falls Middle School.

“Community and economic development is never done,” Costello said. “The best recipe for failure is losing hope. The best recipe for success is lining up together to move a vision forward. Towns that set direction become the squeaky wheels that get the grease.”