City aldermen see value in brainstorming about Vergennes future

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen at their Tuesday meeting said they expected the March 18 “Community Visit” organized by the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) to produce a number of concrete proposals to improve the city for its residents.
Mayor Bill Benton said 111 residents on March 18 signed up for nine workshops moderated by the VCRD and attended by more than two-dozen high-ranking state and county officials and private-sector experts, while 90 residents sat down at a community dinner at St. Peter’s Church that evening.
The workshops were all devoted to aspects of public life in Vergennes, and VCRD moderators encouraged brainstorming and collected ideas from them for a follow-up community meeting. That meeting will be held from 6:30 to 9 p.m. on April 16, at a site to be announced.
Aldermen did not discuss too many specifics of those recommendations on Tuesday, saying they preferred to wait until the April meeting, at which VCRD officials will reveal and discuss what they recommend.  
Alderman Joe Klopfenstein, for example, said he had written down 10 concrete suggestions for April 16. On March 18, he said residents offered both “nuts and bolts” ideas about improving pedestrian safety and more grand concepts about creating more “vibrant life” in Vergennes.
City Manager Mel Hawley, like aldermen, said he is curious about what VCRD officials will choose to come back with next month.
“I’m really anxious to see what is synthesized out of all of these,” Hawley said.
Council member Lynn Donnelly called March 18 “the best day in developing” ideas for improving life in Vergennes she has had.
Donnelly said she attended three sessions that touched on municipal government, and the same topics kept cropping up at each, including the possibility of a city recreation department and the issue of how to fund key area nonprofits.
Mayor Benton agreed many questions raised on what he called “a fascinating day” — for which VCRD officials chose Vergennes from among many interested towns — are related.
“They’re all interwoven,” Benton said.
The March 18 sessions, called by the VCRD “focus forums,” honed in on areas categorized as Municipal and Nonprofit Resources, Tourism, Recreation and Entertainment, the Role of Municipal Government, Basin and Riverside Development, Connecting Youth, Transportation Infrastructure and Pedestrian Safety, the Future of Economic Development, and Vergennes Community Center.
Alderman Michael Daniels said the day “gives us a great tool” to measure what residents would like to see added to or accomplished in Vergennes.
Hawley, who like Benton attended six sessions in all, including meeting with moderators before and after the public meetings, said VCRD officials noted the city had many positives, including an intact downtown with only one current vacancy and plenty of capacity in its municipal water and sewer systems. He said he enjoyed hearing that “they’re telling you Vergennes is in darn good shape.”
Benton said VCRD officials also pointed out that problems still exist in Vergennes, including a poverty rate that is higher than the county average, but agreed with Hawley that they saw many assets.
“They said there are communities that would kill to have a library or an opera house like this, and you have both,” Benton said.
The next step will give officials and residents alike steps to take to improve Vergennes, the mayor said. 
“April 16 is all about getting the community to focus,” Benton said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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