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Transportation, Housing, Wages Biggest Impediments To Economic Stability Citizens Brainstorm Ideas For A Healthy Economy At Forum

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2015-07-17

By Jennifer Hersey Cleveland Staff Writer, Barton Chronicle: http://caledonianrecord.com/

HARDWICK -- There are multitudes of services and funding sources available to people in the rural and agricultural economies of the Northeast Kingdom, but what's lacking is a single point of contact to connect the people who need services with the people who provide them.

That was a recurring theme at Wednesday evening's NEK Collaborative brainstorming session at the Hardwick Town House.

Another recurring theme was that the area needs affordable housing, livable wages, and some sort of public or shared transportation service so that people who are not doing well financially can get ahead.

That might seem like a grand vision that would take a miracle to accomplish.

But one should never doubt what is possible when committed community members band together for the greater good, said Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

Costello and Jenna Whitson, community and policy senior associate, facilitated the session with the help of Ben Doyle, a representative of USDA Rural Development.

The Hardwick Town House renovations and the Newport Renaissance work are just two examples of the power of a group of like-minded people, Costello said.

The session was the third in a series, after earlier sessions in Newport City and Canaan, that will generate ideas and priorities for a "decision session" at Lyndon State College Aug. 6.

"There's a sense of momentum that's going to fulfill itself," Costello said.

The session was broken into three segments in which participants were asked to answer three questions about their vision for the future of the communities and economy of the NEK, their ideas to support the economy and boost opportunities, and action ideas to implement those ideas and fulfill those visions.

Mary Berlejung likes the idea of having a village center, where all necessary commerce can be accomplished, surrounded by agricultural lands.

Joe Patrissi, executive director of Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA), would like to replicate the local food economy that has revitalized Hardwick. Communities that rely on industries like Ethan Allen can be quickly devastated when those industries close, he said.

But, said Cheryl Michaels, employers need to pay fair wages while ensuring the agricultural, rural character of local communities. While buying all local meat is wonderful, many people cannot afford that.

Income disparity is huge issue, said Tracy Martin, and we're not doing well connecting people with resources to help them achieve economic comfort.

An example took place right at the session, when Hardwick Downtown Program Coordinator Gary Holloway mentioned how helpful revolving loan funds and municipal tax abatements can be.

A Hardwick selectman said the town already has those services, but apparently people are not aware of them.

Neil Morrissette, a Newport City alderman, said employers in his area are constantly searching for qualified workers, while the area continues to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

"There are resources, but the right people don't seem to know about them," said Shari Cornish.

Cornish's 86-year-old mom is troubled by the dilapidated state of some rental housing.

Shawn Donahue said some people are paying up to 70 percent of their income on rental housing, which leaves no money to put back into the local economy, since the housing owner often does not live here. "Quality of life suffers. When your quality of life suffers, the quality of life of people around you suffers."

Rental unit prices are reaching or exceeding mortgage payments, said David Gross and Cheryl Michaels. Martin said when she bought a home in Brownington, it was only because there was no place to rent.

Cornish said landlords who collect a ton of money from subsidized housing should have an obligation to put some of that money back into the properties.

The youth need to take part in this process, said Helm Nottermann of Snug Valley Farm. "This room should not be full of us old folks," he said.

Maybe this format - a group of people throwing out ideas on a summer evening - does not appeal to younger people, suggested Holloway.

Public transportation would help greatly, said Nancy Nottermann.

That would free up a lot of money, said Gross, if families didn't have to maintain two vehicles, which "acts as a financial siphon from the local economy."

Public transportation requires heavy subsidies to survive, Patrissi said. But services like Uber, which matches people who need rides with people with cars, as well as services that match people with spare rooms with people who need housing, cost the public nothing.

But these services mean nothing without education of digital media, said Tobias Record, proprietor of NEK Digital in Barton. Some people just need education in the basics of the digital world, he said.

There should be one point person who connects people with services, Gross said. But each town can't afford to hire that person, Holloway said.

Holloway suggested that NVDA take a more active role in that regard. Record suggested a list serve that people could join, and if one person doesn't have a good answer to a question, maybe someone else on the list does.