Vergennes makes river basin, business, infrastructure key priorities

VERGENNES — About 100 Vergennes-area residents gathered at the Vergennes Opera House on Wednesday and pledged — with the help of the Vermont Council on Rural Development — to improve the city’s economic climate, Otter Creek river basin, and transportation infrastructure.
They chose those three priorities from among a dozen choices after discussion and two votes run by Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) representatives, who offered those dozen options after listening to another gathering of more than 100 residents a month ago.
VCRD will now spend another month researching resources at the state and federal government levels and among Vermont and national nonprofits. VCRD with then return with action plans focusing on those priorities that city government, citizen volunteers and area civic groups can make happen.
VCRD Director Paul Costello said Vergennes should not rely solely on that outside help, but use it as a tool to improve the community. And he urged those present to do so.
“You’re not waiting for Washington, D.C., or Montpelier to do this … It’s all about local leadership,” Costello said. “Be part of it one way or another.”
Mayor Bill Benton is helping organize the three-phase VCRD “community visit” to Vergennes, about the 24th such time the VCRD has brought the program to a Vermont town. Benton said he was happy with the final choices.
He said the emphasis on the larger economic issues and infrastructure would benefit a number of the other dozen priorities that did not make the final cut.
“It is all interrelated,” Benton said. “The fact that people thought about the economic capacity of the community is great. Without that extra capacity it’s hard to take that next step.”
The “Advance the Vergennes Economy” priority combined a second choice that also made the first cut from 12 to six, titled, “Expand the Community and Economic Development Capacity of the City.”
The central idea in the latter proposal was that the city should consider a 1 percent local option tax that could raise $130,000 a year to support the Vergennes Partnership’s efforts, recreation projects, or river basin, downtown or other community improvements.
Residents Tim Cowan and Kevin Rooney suggested that option tax could be a tool considered by a task force charged with advancing the local economy, and the proposals were merged after a show of hands showed almost unanimous support.
The initial vote — attendees placed stickers on their preferred posters on the back wall of the room — came without discussion and reduced the proposals from 12 to seven after two were tied for sixth. The combination of the economic proposals then brought the total down to six, and those in attendance were then invited to speak in favor of their preferred priorities — without criticizing those they did not favor.
Many then spoke in favor of  “Redevelop the Vergennes Falls Basin & Open a Riverwalk.” One resident called the basin “under-utilized and distinctive” and “uniquely Vergennes.” Alderman Michael Daniels said the boat traffic there has boosted the city’s economy, and resident Sarah Cowan said, “The small improvements we have already made have had a major impact on the basin.”
Others lobbied for the economic piece. A downtown business owner said the economic climate tends to be seasonal, and the owner would like steps taken to make it “viable year-round.”
Vergennes Partnership Director Tara Brooks said her organization tries to work on many of the issues posted on the opera house wall, but like other city nonprofits is hampered by lack of capital. She pointed to the economic development piece, specifically the local option tax, as a possible answer.
“Part of the reason we have had these swings up and down is because we haven’t had consistent funding,” Brooks said.
A newcomer to Vergennes from a city she said was “10 times larger” spoke in favor of “Improve Transportation and Parking,” saying she found it harder to get around by foot or bicycle in the Little City than in her former hometown.
Alderman Joe Klopfenstein made a pitch for the three that ultimately were chosen, saying, for instance, the basin area couldn’t be developed without better transportation and parking, and neither could be done without better funding.
“Those really need to be tied together,” Klopfenstein said.
The other choices that made the first cut, all of which also drew vocal support, were:
•  “Develop a Vergennes Community Center” that could serve all ages.
•  “Expand Recreational Opportunities for Youth & All Members of the Community.”
•  “Develop a Year-Round Farmers’ Market & Expand the Food Economy.”
Choices that didn’t get past the first vote were:
•  “Become a Biking Center and Destination.”
•  “Build a Unifying Calendar & Improve Communications.”
•  “Develop a Vergennes Arts Committee.”
•  “Expand Tourism in Vergennes.”
•  “Marketing Vergennes Business.”
All the proposals came from VCRD’s analysis of what area residents said at nine workshops held on March 18 and attended by 111 residents. In all, Costello said there were 13-and-a-half hours of meetings held that day that generated 25 pages of VCRD notes.
Costello also said, “Ideas that didn’t get prioritized didn’t get dismissed,” and that work would continue on them.
 “None of these issues are going away,” he said. “The city manager and the city council are paying attention.”
But in order to make effective use of the VCRD resources, Vergennes had to narrow its focus, Costello said.
“In a way, you would like to say do them all,” Costello said. “Choosing makes the difference.”
City officials said they were happy with Wednesday’s results. Planning commission chairman Shannon Haggett said the process will provide valuable information to the ongoing rewrite of the city plan, and he is looking forward to VCRD’s return a month from now with the action plan.
“In the end we came out with some pretty good focus and some action items that I think are quite feasible for us as a community to tackle,” Haggett said. “I’m excited about the next steps.”
Benton said the VCRD process has worked elsewhere, and told the crowd he would like to see what the future holds.
“I think that was fascinating, and it was great that everything that was said was positive,” Benton said. “Let’s go forward and look at it in a year and see what we’ve accomplished.”
Costello said he was optimistic for the same reasons VCRD picked Vergennes for the community visit.
“When we approached Vergennes, we heard a lot about good leadership,” he said. “That’s why we chose Vergennes.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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