Clippings: Middlebury offers an ideal setting

A fellow publisher from my home state of Kansas stopped by this weekend for dinner at our Lake Dunmore home. He sold his three papers back in 2007 while in his late 50s, and he and his wife have been shopping ever since. Not for goods to consume, but for a new place to live.
They’ve shopped California, found the weather delightful around the Santa Barbara area, but housing and living expenses in the stratosphere. Ditto the Bay Area around San Francisco. They’ve shopped Oregon (from Bend to the rugged coast line), the spectacular northwest corner of Washington state, up and down the Rockies, even Las Vegas — great deals on houses, they said, but the underbelly of that city and the surrounding area is what you might expect.
They’ve been to the Carolinas, Virginias, parts of the East Coast, Wisconsin-Minnesota areas (Madison was a consideration, they said, but the politics are not what they were in the 1970s). And they’ve been to Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and several parts of New York, including the city.
Throughout the years, what they’ve learned — and always knew — is there’s no perfect spot. Each place has its attributes and detractions. Picking a home town, in their circumstance, is somewhat like a marriage: You need compatibility, but most important is trying to determine if the community you pick will result in a relationship in which it feels good to give back.
This visit was their third to Middlebury, a town they had considered several years ago (and which is still in the running), but it hasn’t been so compelling to call off their search and settle in. At least, not yet.
In the course of our conversation that evening, which lingered until just past 11, we compared notes of places we had all lived and how each stacked up in our hierarchy of favorites. We boasted of the college and its willingness to share resources (auditing some classes and lectures, the art museum, sports facilities, nearby skiing). We highlighted the Town Hall Theater, the Opera Company of Middlebury, and an active community theater organization. We talked of our thriving business organization (the Better Middlebury Partnership) and of an active chamber, and the productive and symbiotic town-gown relationship. My daughter and her beau gushed about the number of younger adults taking over leadership positions in the town and how active the young professional groups, including an active group of telecommuters, could become. They seemed more impressed with this inner aspect of Middlebury than what they had seen from the outside.
The obvious question for them, after their five-year search, was just what these two were searching for.
To that query, their answer was pretty firm: He’s drawn to the mountains more than to the ocean; they want to be relatively near a big city; a college town is preferred; they want the ability to recreate outdoors (hiking, running, biking, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, kayaking or canoeing rivers and lakes); a good book store and a community that’s engaged in thoughtful discourse (they love to read); he doesn’t like the heat (so rule out the Southeast or Southwest). They’re active and fit, and she (who’s younger), wants to get back in the workforce and pursue nonprofit work that helps others.
Voila, we thought. Everything they’re looking for is right here in Middlebury. We assured them as much and then addressed a couple of myths they were harboring: the Yankee sense of being a bit standoffish and unwelcoming; the unending winters with bone-chilling cold; the mythic isolation in rural communities; the lack of access to the cultural amenities of a large city.
You can rattle off the rebuttals in a few moments: While Vermont doesn’t have the welcoming committees of the Midwest, that’s OK, no one needs that many cookies and fruitcakes, anyway, and it seems to always come with a gotcha — “then we’ll see you at church next Sunday?” Vermonters are plenty friendly when you approach them and very willing to embrace new acquaintances and friends, but they also respect one’s privacy. For the most part, they figure if and when you’re ready to make friends, you’ll make the rounds and bring a batch of cookies with you. And if you haven’t reached out to your neighbors in the first few months, then maybe you’re not the socializing type. It’s really not Yankee aloofness, just putting the onus where it ought to lie.
The winters? Yeah, they can be long, but these days rarely bone chilling. The last time it was 20 below seems years ago, and the last time we had a string of really cold weather (where it stayed below zero for five or more days in a row) was almost beyond memory (say 15-20 years). And besides, there are plenty of bluebird days in mid-winter when the sun’s reflection off the snow is brighter than any summer day and the entire landscape brims with pristine beauty and unbounded energy. Hopefully those days make up for the gray days and cooler temps.
As for isolation, that’s a thing of the past. The state is more connected than ever and if you want connectivity, you can have it at your fingertips with just a little planning. Proximity to cities? Montreal and Albany are two hours away, with Boston at 3 hours, 15 minutes, from the house and New York City just another hour. That’s hardly isolated compared to parts of the Midwest, northern California or western Oregon/Washington, anywhere in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico, and all of Colorado but the two-hour perimeter around Denver.
Vermont, in sum, stacks up pretty well, if you’re OK with longer winters. But that can be a determining factor. For a Kansan used to a two-month winter and flowers blossoming in March-April, Vermont’s six-month winter is a stark change. That’s where a town’s cultural center needs to step to the fore. We need things to occupy the mind, activities to encourage outdoor play, more opportunities to engage in the arts, various ways to build stronger ties within (whether that is mentoring the youth or sharing stories with elders), and opportunities to explore the world with friends.
On most of those fronts, Middlebury scores well, though we could work on more ways to build stronger ties within and make those opportunities better known.
And we need easier transportation. Being able to hop on a train in downtown Middlebury bound for New York City (and getting there within six to seven hours) would be a huge boon. Being able to take a train to Burlington and transfer to the airport easily would be magical, and getting back home easily would be simply divine.
But the shortage of current transportation options and the distances to metro areas really aren’t deal breakers. What cements the deal is being able to recognize a clear sense of community. Does Middlebury have it? How easy is it to get involved? Are the activities to pursue worthy of the person’s efforts? Will their contributions make them feel as though they’ve made the community better and a bit their own?
These are worthy questions to ask for a couple looking to adopt a new home town, and worthy questions for communities to ask themselves, if they hope to attract prospective newcomers. Next stop for them: Toronto and then back to Kansas where they’ll either decide to do some more shopping, or bite the bullet and buy.

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