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Paul Costello Commentary: Vernon is building its future

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2016-09-26

All Vermonters know that the town has taken a hard blow with the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee. The closure has had direct economic impacts on jobs, employee relocations, declining home values, and lost taxes and fees to the town that support the school and essential community services. The dislocation has put tremendous pressure on everyone in town. At the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) we’ve been honored to be part of a “Community Visit” process these past six months where residents have united to set new directions and renew relationships with state, federal, nonprofit and business leaders to advance community projects and the economic future of the town.

This year the VCRD celebrates the fact that we have provided six-month-long Community Visit processes to over 50 Vermont towns. We never approach a community as the outside experts who “know what’s good for you.” We believe in the power of local democracy and community leadership, and we bring a disciplined structure where local residents define key issues and opportunities for the future, choose priorities for action, and line up to drive projects forward for the long-term renewal of the community and its economy. We’ve worked with towns from Pownal to Richford, Rutland to St. Johnsbury and we know that “once you know one Vermont community … you know one Vermont community.” Every town has distinct assets, a unique panoply of personalities, and its own internal imperatives and opportunities. Our work is inspiring to us, partly because we come without agenda and don’t try to sell towns on any particular truth; partly because we see democracy at work in powerful and unifying ways; and partly because we come to know and deeply appreciate these towns and all the hard working people dedicated to their improvement. We get to work with the real heroes of Vermont.

One of the interesting things that we see everywhere is how this process of sharing, listening, reflecting, championing directions, choosing priorities, and lining up in common direction can come to set a consensus definition of “progress” for a community. It has been exciting to have worked with the residents of Vernon these last months as they set their own definition of progress for the future and line up to implement their vision. Getting to know this quiet corner of Vermont has taught VCRD and the 44 folks on our Visiting Team that Vernon is a community with tremendous assets including good soils, fields, farms, forests, the beautiful Connecticut River, and pleasant homes in dispersed rural neighborhoods. Residents are proud of their very good school, wonderful library, great recreation department and strong town government.

Through the Community Visit process three new directions were set and three task forces developed to: enhance the Village Center of Vernon, open a community store and café, and develop the riverfront and improve trails and outdoor recreation. Over 45 volunteers are now working together to envision and build a future “downtown,” plan and develop trails and river access and activities, and develop a village store — this last group is already setting up a pop-up café in the town office building to bring people together and build momentum.

Meanwhile, the town also set key economic development goals that will be led by the Vernon Planning and Economic Development Commission — a team that many larger towns in Vermont would envy. This group is evaluating ways to boost broadband fiber for the community and especially toward key access points for business development. It is looking into opportunities to use the existing electric grid assets in the community and exploring future generation possibilities, from wood-fired combined heat and power, to gas generation, a solar project, battery storage, and the exciting potential for an energy research and business incubation center. The team has strengthened relationships with Green Mountain Power, VELCO, the State of Vermont, regional planning and development partners, congressional offices and many other allies through the Community Visit process who are eager to see and support progress on these initiatives.

There is no guarantee of success in all of these projects, and no one is coming from Washington or even Montpelier to build the future of Vermont towns like Vernon. But with all this town has gone through, there is a power in Vernon, a capacity to lead, a dedication to building the strongest possible community and economic development future.

In a time where our civic unity is so challenged nationally, Vernon is making democracy real, and proving that when people come together, nothing is impossible and a better future is guaranteed. In fact, it is already here.

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Paul Costello, the executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. For more information, see the Vernon Community Visit Report and Action Plan at www.vtrural.org. Vernon is a community on the move today.