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Randolph Gets Re-Energized: Hundreds Talk Revitalization

2018-04-12

BY TIM CALABRO, as seen in the Randolph Herald: https://www.ourherald.com/articles/randolph-gets-re-energized/

Gary Holloway of the Vermont Housing and Community Development Department moderates a discussion about lodging and tourism at Chandler’s Esther Mesh Room Tuesday, during the kick-off event for the Randolph Region Re- Energized program. (Herald / Tim Calabro)

At the end of five hours of brainstorming ideas for the betterment of the town, about 150 Randolph-area residents were still full of life as the Randolph Region Re-Energized kick-off meeting disbanded at 8:30pm Tuesday night.

The program, Randolph Region Re-Energized, is the local iteration of the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s Model Climate Communities initiative, which aims to provide municipalities with a framework for implementing positive changes.

Tuesday’s kick-off event began at 3:30 p.m. with three events, one each at the town office, Chandler Music Hall’s Esther Mesh Room, and at 2 South Main Street, an empty building on the corner of Merchants Row.

Each room was packed tight with interested people, tossing out ideas that they thought could benefit the town.

At the town offices, people tackled transportation-related themes and then, in the second section, home and business energy efficiency. At Chandler, the topics were agriculture and food, followed by lodging and tourism. Education and workforce training, followed by entrepreneurship were the focus of the two sessions at 2 South Main Street.

Moderated by a team of visiting experts from various organizations, Tuesday’s events were staged as a purely idea-collecting expedition, facilitators said. Careful notes were taken during the seven brainstorming sessions, which will be compiled and analyzed over the next few weeks by a team at the Vermont Council for Rural Development (VCRD). Duplicate ideas will be merged together, according to Jon Copans, the director of the Model Climate Communities project, and a full presentation of findings will be made at a second meeting in May.

The six hour-long sessions were followed by a community dinner at Randolph Union High School and then by an evening event in the school’s Murray Auditorium.

There, the “visiting team,” a panel of experts brought to town to listen to and moderate discussions throughout the day, offered their own take on what they saw in Randolph.

Experts’ Ideas

Kevin McCollister of Catamount Solar made a case for folks self-organizing for another whack at a community solar project.

One such project was built on South Randolph Road in 2015 and plans were made for a second, which hit regulatory road blocks in 2016.

According to McCollister, community solar projects, made possible by the state’s group net-metering rules, enable those without property suitable for solar siting to take advantage of the cost savings and ecological benefits of a jointly-owned solar array.

“The cost per watt,” he said, “is just way cheaper than if you buy [your own installation] and put it on your roof. It lets everybody save.”

He also made a pitch for another round of the successful Solarize project that Randolph has previously run, which secures discounts on solar energy by signing up many homeowners at a time for installations.

McCollister was followed by Gary Holloway of the Department of Housing and Community Development, the state’s downtown development coordinator.

Holloway emphasized the importance of clearly articulating goals and including as many voices as possible in choosing those goals.

“The more you engage the community,” he said, “the more people feel like they’ve been heard.”

Former St. Albans Mayor Liz Gamache told the story of the transformation of her town following a period of struggle.

The town, she said, had been hampered by a desire to keep things exactly the same and, with a few calculated risks, was able to shake things up with some strong leadership.

According to Gamache, a focus on people helped advance inventive projects in the downtown and “with success, it starts to snowball.”

She said the town had increased the grand list by about 40% in just a couple years and seen an 80% single-year increase in home sales.

On the energy front, Lucy Gibson, an electric vehicle expert who works at Randolph’s DuBois & King, suggested a municipal focus on converting town-owned vehicles to their electric equivalents.

The models, she said, are getting longer and longer ranges as the technology improves, and the cost savings can be tremendous. Gibson noted that more than half of the money that Vermonters spend on energy is spent on transportation.

Maura Adams of the Northern Forest Center promoted her organization’s efforts to spread “automated wood heating” as a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative to oil or propane. The wood-pellet technology, she said, has been widely embraced by large companies, but hasn’t yet spread to residential and small business locations.

Efficiency Vermont’s Paul Markowitz roused the crowd with an original song and harmonica performance recounting the weatherization blues. He urged Randolph to closely examine the possibility of net-zero municipal buildings, a prospect he said could save the town greatly. Energy, he pointed out, tends to be municipalities’ second or third highest expense.

Kate Stephenson, who set up a revolving loan fund in Montpelier, to help fund municipal energy-efficiency projects, shared her work and explained how a small initial investment could gradually help tackle a town’s efficiency needs.

More Ideas

Sprinting around RUHS’s Murray Auditorium, microphone in hand, Paul Costello, the VCRD executive director, solicited more ideas from the 150 Randolph-area residents in attendance for the day’s final meeting.

“At this stage,” Costello said, “we’re building a big, wide-mouthed funnel and we’re dropping in as many ideas as we can.”

One resident suggested examining alternative, semi-nonprofit corporate structures for energy initiatives; another offered the idea of a town-wide fairgrounds; another asked for a town position that would coordinate various projects; yet another proposed a sidewalk to the Shaw’s grocery store.

Ideas about hotel locations, seasonal events to hold, ways to extract energy from waste, and marketing opportunities were shared.

Jessica Taffett proposed a community greenhouse, where residents could start their plants for the season.

Brian Townsend offered that the abundance of open lands in Randolph would make for a great landing “hive” for Amazon.com delivery drones.

Pauline Poulin said she’d like to see fruit trees planted in the downtown as part of an edible landscape.

Sam Hooper, the owner of Green Mountain Glove, shared his own vision.

“I have this weird dream, where I get out of work and I walk over to the train station and I get on the train and I go to Burlington or Montpelier. I have a date and I fall in love. And I have kids and they go to Randolph [schools]. It’s cool.”

On To ‘Doing’

The next meeting in the Randolph Region Re-Energized program will be held on May 7.

According to Copans, that’s when the VCRD staff will present their findings from the hundreds of proposals made at the kick-off event, and residents will vote on which goals make the most sense to tackle.

Task forces made up of interested people from the community will form around the selected themes and begin the work of making them happen.

“This is not a planning exercise,” Copans said at the end of the long day of discussions. “This is a doing exercise.”