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Council on Rural Development gives Rockingham task forces a start

2020-02-19

BY BILL LOCKWOOD, The Shopper: https://vermontjournal.com/featured-articles/council-on-rural-developmen...

BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – On a suggestion by Development Director Gary Fox, the Rockingham Selectboard invited the Vermont Council on Rural Development to come to Bellows Falls and hold community meetings for a process called “Let’s Take Action Rockingham” that would lead to defining town wide action steps intended to improve the community and quality of life for its residents.

The council has done this process for 20 years in over 75 Vermont towns including a prior visit here in the late ‘90s. A meeting of three newly formed task forces at the Bellows Falls Middle School Feb. 13 was the final of three meetings of the current council visit. Being here officially for his third time, Paul Costello, executive director of the council, said in his opening remarks that Bellows Falls is the “envy of the state in its redevelopment of its downtown.”

He also noted that it usually comes down to just a few people when the action groups or task forces are formed, but he said, “It is wickedly impressive how many turned out tonight.” There appeared to be over a dozen or more residents enthused to be serving on each of the three task forces. Speaking later, he said, “We fell in love with Bellows Falls.”

Despite Costello’s positive view of the town, residents identified many needs for improvement during the first step of the process Dec. 4, 2019 when the council held nine forums on topics that had been picked by a steering committee organized by the town. These were forums open to all community members and were well-attended. The council then returned Jan. 8 when around 200 residents gathered at the Opera House and voted on three actionable areas from a list of 24 opportunities identified at the forums.

They were redeveloping Bellows Falls buildings; community energy, efficiency, and resiliency; and build a youth center. Those interested then signed up to be on task forces for each category.

These were the task forces that met at the middle school last Thursday for discussions as a group and individually with council members and experts brought to town to provide ideas and resources. The 16 experts spanned a gamut from Chelsea McAllister of the Springfield Youth Center; Joanna Miller, outreach director and energy program coordinator of the Vermont Natural Resources Council; Jon Muise, Vermont area director of USDA Rural Development; and Carolyn Sweet, director of planning and development for SEVCA.

After the discussion, the task forces each presented specific action steps they will pursue. The Buildings group, chaired by Ray Massucco, will create a task force for joint strategic planning among a number of organizations; complete a building inventory update to highlight opportunities; disseminate information about development in multiple ways; and provide a tour of buildings for investors and interested parties.

The Energy and Efficiency group, chaired by Laurel Green, noted that the community can significantly advance weatherization right now; will look at developing a community solar project; will look at composting; will look at transportation options such as charging stations and ride share opportunities; and will serve as a focal point for a larger community discussion.

The Youth Center group, chair to be named, will build a shared plan and vision around opportunity and how to do it in an inclusive way; identify partners and partner with existing youth organizations such as Youth Services; visit other youth centers; identify possible spaces for a center; communicate a plan once it is formed; and create a funding plan.

The council will now produce a final report but will continue to consult as to available experts and resources. Now the rest is up to the residents of Rockingham. The council can be accessed through community and policy manager Jenna Koloski at 802-225-6091 or jenna@vtrural.org.