By Katie Mettler
Valley News Staff Writer
(Published in print: Friday, June 14, 2013)
South Royalton — It was a day of firsts on the green in South Royalton yesterday. The town’s grant-funded public wifi was unveiled and the third annual BALE Fest got rained on.
“The last two years we’ve had beautiful weather,” said Chris Wood, a staff member for the organization BALE — Building a Local Economy — which serves as a resource for local businesses and brings them together for events like BALE Fest. The rain was steady yesterday, but so was the foot traffic as Upper Valley residents weaved among more than 50 booths lining the green.
“This is a celebration of all things local,” said Wood, who helped coordinate the 6-hour event. BALE Fest kicked off at 3 p.m. with an official introduction to the town’s new free public wireless Internet connection.
When Tropical Storm Irene hit in August 2011, towns in Vermont were cut off from assistance. In the storm’s aftermath, some residents in Royalton were focused on improving communication of all types, said Caitlin Lovegrove, the network and outreach coordinator for the Vermont Digital Economy Project, which funded the wifi installation.
The U.S. Economic Development Agency awarded the state a $1.8 million grant to aid towns that were rebuilding in Irene’s wake. The Vermont Council on Rural Development was awarded the grant money, Lovegrove said, and developed the digital economy project. Designed to provide broadband infrastructure and online tools for towns that were hit worst by Irene, the program kicked off in January of this year and received 24 applications. Project Director Sharon Combes-Farr and her team identified eight towns that needed help the most, and Royalton was one of them.
In addition to the public wifi, the project created a landing page for the connection, which could be used to post advisories, safety notices and public memos. Although the project funded the equipment and installation, it is up to the town to pay the monthly $80 Internet bill. Soliciting help from local businesses, the town sold ad space on the landing page for $30 each. Reaching the entirety of the town green and some nearby businesses, the wifi signal has several purposes.
“It’s a win, win, win, win,” Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, said to the handful of onlookers who ventured from the protection of the large white tents to hear her and others speak at the unveiling. Buxton explained that the free wifi would serve local businesses, residents and visitors and promote public safety awareness.
“This will help us stand up to the next Irene,” said Ted Brady, a representative from U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office. “Hopefully this will be able to make us look back 100 years from now and say Irene made us a stronger community.”
The rallying spirit of the wifi installation went hand-in-hand with BALE Fest’s call for community engagement.
“Now buy local today and buy a lot,” Buxton, wrapping up the wifi unveiling.
Within the first few hours of the festival, Wood had predicted turnout wouldn’t surpass the 1,000 people who attended last year. But he was confident that area residents would show up later in the evening for the entertainment planned at the bandstand.
As Wood explained the value of BALE Fest, 2-year-old Emmitt Wurm, in green rainboots and a Boston Red Sox cap, played with 2-year-old Quinton Smith in the center of the green as their moms ate local food and chatted with friends. Quinton’s mother, Meg Hopkins of Tunbridge, said she’d been attending since its inception, when her husband’s band performed, and enjoys getting together with community members.
“It’s well-timed because everyone is ready to get out and celebrate,” Hopkins said. The wet and chilly weather didn’t stop young kids from wrestling in the grass or engaging in several hands-on activities; a Royalton Recreation face-paint station, a Vermont Energy Education Program workshop about home insulation and an area to practice jumping rope.
The Vermont Independent School of the Arts had set up a table to promote the music lessons they offer, and across the green George White of Tunbridge and Paul Kristensen of Sharon repaired bicycles. By 5 p.m., the duo had done simple repairs on eight bicycles, completely free of charge.
“The goal is to just get people on their bikes,” White said.
“What’s equally important is the pep talk we give them,” Kristensen added.
Vendors weren’t required to pay a registration fee, but were encouraged to make a donation to the BALE Fest silent auction.
“We were here last year and we’ll be back next year,” White said.
Katie Mettler can be reached at 603-727-3234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.