Council on Rural Development holds follow-up to community forums

community forums
Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, making opening remarks. Photo by Bill Lockwood

BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – On Wednesday, Jan. 8, the Vermont Council on Rural Development visited the town of Rockingham in a priority-setting meeting at the Bellows Falls Opera House to continue the process that began Dec. 4, 2019 with its well-attended community forums. All community members were invited to this gathering that had the stated purpose of reviewing the action items gathered at the forums and from online and youth surveys, discussing what is most important, voting on community priorities, and, importantly, lining up for action. The final result of the evening was that three action areas were selected and people signed up to be on task forces for building a youth center; advancing community energy, efficiency, and resiliency; and redeveloping Bellows Falls buildings.

A large group of perhaps 200 attended the meeting Wednesday. In his opening remarks, Paul Costello, executive director of the Council on Rural Development, said, “There’s no vision for the redevelopment of rural America except the one we make.”

Later, he said that after the first session visitors from around the state who attended told him, “They heard an amazing story of this town and an amazing number of assets and talents.” He also complimented the town on its opera house as a “great facility,” but he added that with all aspects of progress, “It’s in constant need of renewal.”

The presenters had a list of 24 “ideas and opportunities” identified at last month’s forums. Two more were added in the ensuing discussion. They ranged from boosting tourism and marketing; improving broadband service; improving public transportation; supporting and fostering small businesses; expanding access to quality child care and improving life for Rockingham youth; advancing access to the arts for all to start a community garage; expanding and improving recreational facilities, and developing the hemp and CBD industry. Those in attendance then voted to narrow the list down to eight.

Then, the attendees were invited to speak in favor of their favorites. Speaking from the floor in favor of a youth center, Deb Witkus felt it would “produce creative citizens.” It was felt that a youth center was “actionable and concrete in that it can be accomplished.”

Perhaps less concrete, Amy Howlett said of energy efficiency, “If we don’t get this under control, we have nothing.”

Laural Green felt the energy topic would be “thinking toward the long future.”

As to redeveloping buildings, Roberta Stradling said we could have “buildings now liabilities turned to assets.” There was a general consensus that restoring the old buildings would also aid some of the other areas like small business development and jobs for youth.

After some discussion, the attendees voted again, and the final three action items were selected. Costello noted that just because a topic was not selected for the final three that will have task forces doesn’t mean that residents can’t unite and work on them as well.

Local business owner Kathleen Govotski said, “It was great to see the community coming together for the future.”

The next step will be Feb. 13 when council staff will be back at the Bellows Falls Middle School at 6:30 p.m. to launch the task forces. The council will invite visitors from across the state who have been involved in similar projects and who will share their expertise. Anyone interested or seeking more information can contact Jenna Koloski of the council at 802-225-6091 or jenna@vtrural.org.

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