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Swanton residents will have their say: VCRD visit aims to prioritize wants and needs

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2015-01-09

By MICHELLE MONROE, St. Albans Messenger

SWANTON — The Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) this month will make a community visit here. Among the issues certain to face discussion are hopes for a revitalization of the downtown district.

The community visits provide a forum for community members to come together and discuss the needs of the community, prioritize those needs, and, with the help of VCRD draw on a variety of resources to create community projects.

In the past, community visits have resulted in four-season tourism planning at Killington, an affordable housing project in Poultney, redesign of downtown Johnson, and a weekly evening of outdoor music and shopping in Rutland.

Locally, Fairfield was the most recent community to have a visit. In 2010, the community identified a farmer's market as a community need. The Fairfield Farmers Market Online was a direct result of those conversations.

Richford was the first community to participate in the community visit, back in 1996. Its citizens identified a merger of the village and town as their top priority, which they accomplished.

The community visit begins with an initial brainstorming day, which is open to everyone in the community. Any and all ideas about the future of the community and its needs are welcome. In Fairfield, about 100 people attended this meeting.

The topics include all aspects of community life, not just economic development, although that is often a part of the discussion.

"It really brings so many voices from the community together," said Molly Lambert, a member of the Swanton steering committee overseeing the visit process. Some of those voices may not have been heard before, she said. It also gives people who may never have met a chance to connect.

The meeting promotes healthy discussion about the community, according to Lambert. "It's not out of towners," she said.

"That meeting is going to be the time to get off the sidelines," said Reg Beliveau, the Swanton Village manager.

The visit is an opportunity for residents to give guidance to community leaders about what they see as priorities, explained Beliveau, as well as take a more active role themselves if they wish. "A lot of it is ideas," he said. "Regardless of who you are, we want to hear from you."

At a second meeting, about a month later, attendees revisit the ideas from the first meeting, selecting top priorities. "Then you get to the action," said Lambert.

Since the Swanton revitalization effort got underway in 2013 some 60 to 70 people have attended meetings to discuss ways to improve and maintain Swanton's downtown. "You can't have a healthy community without having a healthy core," said Lambert, with vital business and "events that bring people together."

The idea for a community visit grew out of those discussions.

A previous survey of Swanton residents found that education, recreation and transportation were among the top priorities for residents. "Those are very difficult for a community to tackle on its own," said Lambert.

That's where VCRD's ability to connect the town with outside resources can make a difference, according to Lambert.

The final meeting in the formal visit process is a Community Resource Day, which involves the creation of action plans to address the priorities set in the first two meetings.

Beliveau said he and the village staff would be committed to working on those plans. "We have too much to offer not to go after this 110 percent," he said.

Town officials are just as committed, according to Beliveau. "Our drive and our motivation is to work together to better Swanton as a community," he said.