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Community Visit draws to a close; final meeting will set task forces


By Chris Mays, Brattleboro Reformer:

VERNON >> The Community Visit process is coming to a close in one sense. But community action is just beginning in another.

Task forces assigned to deal with priorities voted on by community members at a meeting last month will have a chance to talk with a resource team made up of officials from local, state, federal and non-profit organizations.

"It's typically the final step in the Community Visit," said Jenna Whitson, community and policy manager for the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

Her group was brought in to assist Vernon on its journey through life after Vermont Yankee, the nuclear plant currently in the decommissioning process since it shut down at the end of 2014. The closure has left the community wondering what options are available to help with the tax base and attracting new families to town. That question was on everyone's mind at annual Town Meeting in March, where budget cuts were proposed and approved as plant owner Entergy's contributions will now be declining.

A grant from the Windham County Economic Development Program made the Community Visit process possible. And WCEDP is funded through a settlement between Entergy and the state of Vermont.

The council's goal is to keep the momentum going positively, Whitson said. Previous meetings dealt with challenges and opportunities.

Last month, over 50 residents reviewed 15 ideas gathered at a forum in May. They decided on developing the riverfront, improving trails and outdoor recreation, setting up a community store and cafe, and enhancing the village center.

But they also wanted other resources to further the work of the Planning Commission, which is looking at potential economic development projects. The commission had met with parties interested in siting a natural gas plant in Vernon, however, a pipeline project has been shelved.

"The VCRD will also a build a team to meet with that group at a later date," said Whitson. "That will be another step in the process that's unique to Vernon. But this is the last step in the official Community Visit process."

On Thursday, July 7, volunteers who signed up to join task forces and other residents will meet at the Town Offices to figure out the next steps in advancing those goals. The resource team will include Ben Doyle from the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development, Vermont State Parks Director Craig Whipple, Paul Bruhn of the Preservation Trust, Gary Holloway of the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, Susan McMahon and Jeff Nugent of the Windham Regional Commission, Nancy Owens of Housing Vermont, Joan Weir of the Vermont Land Trust, Patrick Olstad of Landworks, and Kate Ash from the office of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The council goes to Brighton next. But Whitson said it will continue to check in with Vernon.

"Essentially, we remain a resource and referral partner to the community in a kind of way," she said. "We'll advocate for the town to help support what they're doing."

In six months, the council will look at where the task forces are in terms of progress.

Whitson said attendees of the last forum were "very thoughtful and deliberate about what would make the most impact" in Vernon.

"I think they came to a really excellent place to stage next steps," she added.

Community members not involved in the other meetings are still welcome to show up to the upcoming one. Several task forces already have some members.

But Whitson said there is no need to sign up ahead of time to join a task force. She called it "a critical point" for people to get involved.

"This is really where the rubber hits the road and things start taking action," she said. "At this point in the process, we tend to see people more engaged, more so than before if they haven't been."