Every time I commute to the Vermont Council of Rural Development office in Montpelier, I head north out of my hometown of Ludlow along Route 100 and pass through Plymouth, Bridgewater, Killington, Pittsfield, Stockbridge, Bethel, and Royalton to get to I-89. The bumpy roads en route include multiple bridges still under construction and some houses and businesses that lay damaged and abandoned after Tropical Storm Irene. Constantly confronted by the physical damage caused by the storm, I have been impatient for the Vermont Digital Economy Project to come to life in flood-impacted communities.
Caitlin, Rob, and I just had a very exciting week that included visits to the first five communities selected to receive intensive services from our project. We met with town officials and other community leaders in all five towns, including towns as diverse as Bethel, Waterbury, and Halifax.
We asked community leaders in every town similar questions. Can you recount the immediate aftermath of the disaster, so that we can have a picture of the community and how it responded? Where did people congregate and how did they get information about how to help and what to do? What are the businesses and means of livelihood that support the members of your community? Which nonprofit organizations support your community members? And so on.
What emerged from each discussion was unique, with every story equally touching and compelling. We gathered information to help us picture where to place a Wi-Fi zone or hot spot and how to improve the information flow through the community, and to begin to understand the people and organizations with a stake in fostering resilience and economic development in each town. Bethel, Waterbury and Halifax each represent a distinct example of the variation among different towns.
Bethel is a smaller town where agriculture and industry still play a significant role in the town’s industry. The damage from the flooding caused by Irene is still visible along its downtown strip. The Vermont Digital Economy Project can greatly contribute to the revitalization of the damaged downtown by creating a centralized Wi-Fi zone. We also learned that the Vermont Small Business Development Center digital workshops will have to be adapted with more of an agricultural business focus to better apply to the needs of many of Bethel’s businesses.
Waterbury’s struggles come from a different source. It is well known that Waterbury is a much larger community that lost more than a thousand state workers from its daily economy, as a direct result of the flooding of large State offices. It is in the middle of implementing more than a dozen projects in a significant effort to re-structure the Waterbury economy. Our project can participate in this effort by delivering a Wi-Fi zone in part of the downtown, enhancing the municipal website, and providing small business consulting to support planned revitalization.
At the extreme southern tip of the state, Halifax proves an example of a much more rural “cross-roads” town with no business center or downtown. The Halifax Select Board impressed upon us that Halifax is unique from the other towns we had visited thus far, because most of the town’s residents still do not have access to Internet services. We will respond by adapting our Internet Intern program to focus on basic community digital literacy and by installing a Wi-Fi hotspot in a central town location so that school children and other community members can have improved access to the Internet.
From huge economic losses to road damage to overall lack of internet coverage, each town we visited provided us with a specific set of challenges that we will seek to help through our project. Over this past week, the team logged a combined 750 miles to kick-off the Vermont Digital Economy Project in the three towns mentioned above, as well as the great communities of Wilmington and Royalton. This is just the beginning of our 18-month journey to support Vermont communities with digital infrastructure.