Vergennes residents offered chance to help plan city’s future

VERGENNES — Vergennes-area residents will have a rare chance to help shape their community’s future on Tuesday, when the Vermont Council on Rural Development will host a dinner at St. Peter’s Church and nine workshops at the Bixby Library and Vergennes Opera House.
Among those who will be on hand to help with the planning will be at least 30 federal, state, business and nonprofit leaders, including the top officials in several Vermont state agencies.
The Vergennes Council on Rural Development (based in Montpelier, and VCRD for short) last fall chose Vergennes from among a number of statewide applicants for Tuesday’s Community Visit Day.
The VCRD will take and analyze feedback from residents and the more than two dozen experts and state officials who will attend what VCRD calls “focus forums” on Tuesday, and then examine the city’s pluses and minuses with that feedback in mind and make a series of recommendations for “developing concrete action plans” to improve life in the Little City. The Community Visit Day discussions are open to everyone with an interest in improving life in Vergennes. VCRD officials said they hope for a diverse selection of perspectives.
Shoreham hosted a VCRD Community Visit in 2009 and Bristol did so in 2004.
Vergennes Planning Commission chairman Shannon Haggett said not every idea voiced at the meetings would make it to the end of what will be a three-month process, but that similar VCRD efforts in other Vermont towns have been productive.
“It’s like a big funnel. You start off with a lot of ideas,” Haggett said. “You get to the bottom of that funnel, you prioritize as a community, and you get a sense of what you can actually do.”
The nine 90-minute focus forums on Tuesday will be held three at a time beginning at 2:15, 4 and 7 p.m., with the free dinner at St. Peter’s giving participants a break between 5:45 and 6:45 p.m.
At 2:15 p.m., sessions at the Bixby will focus on “Municipal and Nonprofit Resources” and “Tourism,” and at the opera house “Recreation & Entertainment” will be discussed.
At 4, the Bixby will offer “Role of Municipal Government” and “Basin & Riverside Development,” while a “Connecting Youth” session will meet in the theater.
After dinner, “Transportation Infrastructure & Pedestrian Safety” and “The Future of Economic Development” sessions will gather at the Bixby, while the theater group will be devoted to “Vergennes Community Center.”
Scheduled to join residents are a number of high-ranking state officials, including:
•  Jeb Spaulding, Vermont Secretary of Administration.
•  Doug Racine, Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services.
•  Brian Searles, Vermont Transportation Secretary.
•  Lucy Leriche, Deputy Secretary, Vermont Agency of Commerce.
•  Megan Smith, Commissioner, Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing.
•  Lars Hasselblad Torres, Creative Economy Director, Vermont Downtown Program.
•  Ted Brady, a former aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy and current Vermont Director of USDA Rural Development.
Also attending will be representatives — in most cases directors — of the Vermont Arts Council, Preservation Trust of Vermont, Vermont School Board and Superintendents associations, Vermont League of Cities and Towns, Vermont Energy Investment Corp., Vermont Community Foundation, UVM Center for Rural Studies, and Snelling Center for Government, as will several VCRD and local officials and other experts.
Vergennes Mayor Bill Benton will serve as the chairperson for the Vergennes Community Visit process.
“It has been 15 years since the Vergennes Downtown Revitalization Project created a new vision for our city,” Benton said. “We are excited to have the opportunity to work with the Vermont Council on Rural Development to determine where we want to go as a community and how best to get there. They have such a remarkable track record distilling community goals into achievable projects and helping bring these projects to fruition.”
Haggett said the planning commission is excited about the chance to learn about citizens’ concerns for its ongoing rewrite of the city plan, and about residents’ chance to gather and have input on the city’s future — he expects a better turnout than a typical city plan public hearing.
“It’s a better pull with a free dinner for everyone and a variety of topics and a lot of experts,” Haggett said.  
Given the diverse nature and different hours of the focus forums, Haggett hopes one or more will appeal to many residents.
“There are going to be sessions that will touch on just about everybody’s interests,” he said. “If they want to be heard, they should show up.”
He expects to hear different points of view. 
“The more the merrier,” Haggett said. “While there may be a lot of opposing and distinct voices in the process, that’s the only way that it is going to get anything accomplished, to hear everyone and figure out what the best way is to go.”
Results in other communities that have undergone the process have been positive, he said, citing, for example, a number of specific recommendations from a 50-page report on the Fairfield area that VCRD produced.
“Based on what I’ve seen from some of the reports,” Haggett said, “I’m optimistic there are some good things that will come out of it.”
More information about the Community Visit is online at www.vtrural.org/programs/community-visits.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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