By Amy Ash Nixon, as seen in the Caledonian Record: http://www.caledonianrecord.com/news/local/rural-development-council-foc...
Teams from the Vermont Council on Rural Development have visited several Northeast Kingdom communities in recent years. Their mission: to help townspeople determine pathways to improvement.
Through a process called the Community Visit initiative, the VCRD reaches out to communities across Vermont to help citizens identify a handful of priorities they want to work on to make their towns more vibrant and attractive for residents and businesses.
Over the past 20 years, the organization has brought its Community Visit process to some 50 communities in Vermont, where sometimes ideas the town’s select board already hoped to advance are brought to the next level, and citizens sometimes identify projects for the future themselves.
What happens after the Community Visit process is concluded – after a series of three intensive community-wide meetings – is back in the hands of the town where the process took place.
Citizens volunteer for task forces to advance the priorities arrived at through a vote of residents who took part in the visit, and are linked to resources from state and federal agencies to nonprofit foundations which have resources and expertise to move projects forward.
Some towns have seen projects completed – in Craftsbury, a 2015 visit led citizens there to develop a nonprofit child care center which opened in the past month, and a $100,000 grant to improve technology access has been received and that work is advancing.
A hoped-for library expansion project that came out of the Community Visit process in the town of Hardwick in 2016 failed to get enough community support in a town bond vote, but other initiatives have advanced there, including the former Greensboro Garage being converted into a local agriculture center. St. Johnsbury’s hope for a warming shelter in the winter was realized after the process and is now up and running following the 2015 Community Visit process.
Work is also under way to try to redevelop significant downtown buildings in St. Johnsbury, a priority identified during the Community Visit.
Many of the types of initiatives identified in the Community Visit process are significant projects which take time, resources, funding and much planning to bring about, and are in process, officials explained of the work that results from the Community Visit process. According to Jenna Koloski, community and policy manager for the VCRD, “Over time, with hard working local leaders, dedicated volunteers, and connections to key resources, we expect these community driven projects to increase business investment, increase local job opportunities, diversity the local economy, and improve the quality of life in NEK towns.”
Visits this year in Lyndon and Burke were designed to help citizens find a handful of steps toward downtown revitalization, a town recreation program, infrastructure improvements aimed at bringing the village of West Burke back to life, and pedestrian safety improvements in busy East Burke.
Farm Bill Created Unique Organization
The Community Visit process is funded by a grant from the USDA Rural Development and the NEK’s REAP Zone designation. REAP stands for Rural Economic Area Partnership program, and the Kingdom is one of just a handful of the federally-designated zones which target additional federal dollars to support economically distressed rural regions.
In all, a total of $150,000 in grants has supported the VCRD process from USDA Rural Development, said Pollaidh Major, USDA Rural Development’s public affairs specialist based in Montpelier.
The Vermont Council on Rural Development is a unique organization in Vermont, said Paul Costello, its executive director.
VCRD came to life along with rural development councils across the nation under George Bush (senior), he explained. “Both Republicans and Democrats in DC were seeing inefficiencies in federal programs for rural areas,” said Costello.
“We have this charge in federal statute, we’re in the Farm Bill, which asks us to help coordinate federal and state policy to support rural communities,” said Costello. “We look at the big issues communities face and help people to address them. We don’t have federal money or power, we are business-like, we’re a neutral service which works at the community level.”
Activating Local Leadership
“In all of these places, we don’t come in thinking we know better than the people we work with,” said Costello. “We follow their lead and help them get things done.”
Costello said, “In the Community Visit process, it’s all about local leadership – if there is one quote that’s crucial to us, that’s it. We don’t believe the federal government or Montpelier is going to come in and have the answers for a small town in the Northeast Kingdom; what we bring is a discussion and structure to everyone in town. To us, in Democracy, every individual is charged with leadership, it’s standing for what your community’s future can be, and it’s putting yourself on the line.”
A steering committee is created at the start of the process, before a trio of community meetings begin, and deliberately include all walks of life, from an artist to a minister, a senior citizen, a teenager, “We invite people together to have very different points of view deliberately,” said Costello. The final projects chosen by a community to work on after the process can range from economic development to public health, to youth and day care needs, to major infrastructure improvements for water and sewer projects. “We don’t care what the issues are, we don’t claim to be the big experts,” said Costello. “Once the steering committee sets those topics, we find who are the absolute top people in Vermont with expertise, with dollars and with technical assistance and we get on the phone and we call the heads of agencies, the USDA, always the Community Foundation of Vermont and the private nonprofits.”
Jenna Koloski, the council’s community and policy manager, said Thursday that the total cost of the Burke and Lyndon Community Visits in recent months was about $69,000; funding of $50,000 came through the USDA grant in partnership with NVDA; and remaining matching funds came from: the Edwin and Helen Lynch Fund of the VT Community Foundation; the NEK Fund of the VT Community Foundation; Community National Bank; NVDA in-kind administrative support; in-kind contribution of the Visiting Team members; and Town contributions to support mailing and community dinner.
Of coming to the NEK the past few years to conduct the Community Visit process, Costello said, “Every place has seen tough things hit them and you see the resilience and the spirit of people who are working to improve things.”
“The demographic thing is a problem, Vermonters are older and older,” said Costello. “We need to encourage youth and energy and one of the best ways to do it is to give them some leadership,” he said.
USDA Rural Development Perspective
Ben Doyle, director of community and economic development for the USDA Rural Development program, said of the Community Visit process his agency regularly is involved with the Rural Development Council that the agency has a Memorandum of Agreement with the organization and works closely with them in partnerships across Vermont.
“They go out there and they work with communities and help a community say, ‘Who are we as a community?’ ‘What do you want to be?’ ‘What are the challenges?’ ‘What are the opportunities?’ then they have enough cache to bring all these players to the table,” he said of the Community Visit process. “They are doing our homework for us. They set up this community process that USDA Rural Development can just plug into and to try to find projects that are going to be transformational.”
Doyle said, “The number one outcome that comes out of these visits is the community capacity that’s built through them … People learn to work together and develop outcomes and goals and be responsible after everyone’s left. The truth is there’s never enough federal funding or private investment … people have to be able to sustain their own futures, you really need the leadership of the citizens.”
“You can measure the long-term impact of VCRD’s work by looking at the projects that have originated or moved forward as a result of the Community Visit process, whether that’s the expanded broadband and the new childcare center in Craftsbury, the next step in food systems work in Hardwick, or the conversation about safe affordable housing in St. Johnsbury,” Doyle said. “But an equally important impact is the empowerment of community members and new leadership in all of the communities VCRD serves. The process gives people the opportunity to find new ways to work together, form a common vision, and identify financial and human resources that can improve life in their community.”