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Townspeople seek help to create and cultivate community

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2015-02-11

By Alana Fichman/The Commons: http://www.commonsnews.org/site/site05/story.php?articleno=11637&page=1#...

VERNON—Some of the 44 people who assembled in the combined auditorium/cafeteria at Vernon Elementary School were disappointed at the turnout, hoping more would come to hear about what the Vermont Council for Rural Development could do for the town. More people came to town meeting after VY closed, one resident complained.

But Paul Costello, the nonprofit’s executive director said the turnout for this type of introductory meeting was big.

VCRD has worked with at least 45 small towns in the state, most recently Cambridge, to aid economic development and put them on the state map. VCRD has helped with everything from improving water systems to establishing community centers.

“We catalyze leadership and get people connected to resources,” Costello said. “We don’t choose sides [...] the town owns it.

The council emphasizes democratic process, positive change, and connecting towns to resources.

Costello claims that even if legislators are caring and thoughtful, the region between Montpelier and Burlington occupies the majority of the lawmakers’ effort, leaving border towns like Vernon in the dust.

If the council chooses to work with the town, a community steering committee will be selected to identity key issues.

Then, a community meeting day will be organized and residents will have the opportunity to meet with state representatives and experts in the field to create action plans.

The VCRD withdraws after four months. There is no follow up; the organization hopes to have already made an impact on the town and created positive momentum.

As a spirited jump rope demonstration by “The Tornados,” took place in the gym next door, performing students and cheers from their audience could be heard through the walls. On the back table were the requisite brownies, cookies, and apple cider.

In the metal folding chairs sat citizens of Vernon. They want their town back.

The council was invited by Heather Frost, resident and co-editor of the Vernon Newsletter, who had heard about the council’s work and thought it might be a good match for the town.

When asked if Vernon had received any assistance from regional or state government, the room was full of shaking heads, most staunchly from one of the three Selectboard members in attendance.

Then Costello opened the room for comment.

It took a moment for the audience members to warm up, but once they did, the majority of attendees spoke at least once, some more than once.

Some cracked jokes about the age of the residents in the room — few were younger than 40 — and even about the closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power station.

“We’re like the Patriots,” agonized one gentleman. “When they had resources, nobody liked them.”

The voices continued without much pause.

“VY paid the bill for 40 years,” another resident added.

“We didn’t have to produce anything for the town,” another said. “We’re like family: when we get together on the rare occasions, all we do is fight.”

Mothers and grandmothers spoke to the central role of the Vernon Elementary School in creating community.

“Just go peek in through the door over there,” suggested a mother of two, pointing to the gym, “that’s where you’ll find Vernon’s community.”

Others addressed the difficulty of establishing a town on the border. “For every 10 miles you work away, your public participation drops 10 percent,” one resident said.

Still others reminisced about the days when Vernon was a farming town, before the influx of residents that came with VY.

Many already have proposals for projects for the town. One recent resident is excited about the idea of a business incubator. Many are ready to get a community store back in operation, similar to the nearby Guilford Country Store.

The owner of the now-dormant store in Vernon contributes. “We can’t afford to back anybody again,” he says, reluctantly.

Costello latched on. This is where we can help, he explained — connecting Vernon to the resources to establish community gathering places.

That’s when someone said, “We have to rebrand Vernon.”

Costello encouraged this thought. He spoke to the difference between how outsiders and insiders considered the town.

Then, he asked the final question: Would VCRD be useful to Vernon? He added that the Selectboard would have to write a letter to request the assistance, and after that it would be up to the council’s board to decide.

The process could take as long as six to eight months.

The audience immediately requested to know the opinions of the three Selectboard members in attendance, who were quick to point out that their respective personal opinions did not represent the final official vote of the board.

Regardless, all three were firmly in support.

“What if we beg?” one lifelong resident asked dramatically, in a moment of silence, referring to the chance that Vernon wouldn’t be selected.

Costello cracked a smile.

VCRD Community and Policy Senior Associate Jenna Whitson spoke up.

Everyone is concerned that Vernon doesn’t have a community, or that there are too many opposing sides, she observed.

But she pointed out what just happened at the meeting: there were stories, laughter, and exchanges.

People applauded.

After the meeting, tight knit groups lingered, ignoring the goodies on the tables.

Discussing the future of Vernon was far more appealing.