Vergennes residents meet to tackle future city development

VERGENNES — About five dozen state and local officials and local residents met in the Bixby Library on May 21 to begin the third and most important phase in the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) Community Visit to Vergennes — taking steps to make the city better.
The first two steps, taken in March and April, brought more than 100 people to meetings in the Vergennes Opera House. At the first, they brainstormed about the city’s resources and hopes for the future, and at the second they narrowed the focus onto three areas in which to improve life in Vergennes.
On both nights, VCRD officials used and moderated the same process they said had proven effective in other Vermont towns — listening to all and then letting a majority choose the final priorities.
In April, from among a dozen choices VCRD had prepared after listening to the first gathering, local residents chose to focus on improving the city’s economic climate, Otter Creek river basin, and transportation infrastructure.
Last week in the Bixby, the dozens of people joined committees that will spend about a year on each of those tasks. Mayor Bill Benton, who worked with VCRD to coordinate the Community Visit, announced volunteer heads for each group:
•  National Bank of Middlebury executive Sarah Cowan for the “Advance the Vergennes Economy” committee.
•  Greg Edwards, vice president of Stantec Consulting Service Inc., a transportation firm, for the “Improve Transportation and Parking” committee.
•  Mike Winslow, a staff scientist for a nonprofit focusing on Lake Champlain, for the “Redevelop the Vergennes Falls Basin and Open a Riverwalk” committee.
“We’re excited to have those three heading committees,” Benton said.
Last week, VCRD arranged for 10 experts to join the committees while they brainstormed, including the state director of USDA Rural Development, the commissioner of the Department of Economic Development, the secretary of the Agency of Transportation, Addison County Regional Planning Commission and Addison County Economic Development Corp. officials, a representative of Sen. Patrick Leahy and Landworks head David Raphael.
“The economic committee drew the biggest crowd at the Bixby, but also probably faces the biggest challenge,” Benton said.
For example, he said, that committee will look at the politically sensitive question of whether the city should consider a local option tax, ponder what role the Vergennes Partnership should play, look at investing in higher-speed Internet service, and consider whether Vergennes is better off focusing on becoming a bedroom community or instead hiring someone to work on luring business to Vergennes.
If the committee makes that choice, Benton said, the questions of job description, qualifications and funding will arise. He also noted that it is too late in this budget season — aldermen must craft the 2014-2015 budget by June 30 — to dedicate any city funds to such a position. The committee will have to “check back in a year” with the city council, he said.
In all, Benton said that committee will have its work cut out for it.
“That’s a big sphere, with a lot of stuff in it,” he said. “People are saying let’s just hire an economic development director like Middlebury did, but it’s not that easy.”
On the other hand, it’s not that the other committees will simply be strolling in parks, Benton said, but some work has already been done that each can build on.
The transportation committee, he said, can look at work done on pedestrian safety and walkability in the late 1990s and early 2000s, plus another 2013 study done by Middlebury College students that also looked at safer cycling within city limits.
Benton also cited efforts to put a sidewalk on the north side of the Otter Creek Bridge to more safely access the islands in the falls as well as the far shore.
“We’ve already had three or four studies done in the last 15 years,” Benton said. “I think that committee can get a lot accomplished.”
Meanwhile, over the past years the city has also studied improving access to the Otter Creek basin, upgrading trails and parks along the river, and extending city dock space.
“The basin group is similar,” Benton said. “We have a lot of studies from the revitalization group that can be utilized.”
VCRD will be ready to support the committees, Benton said.
“That’s where some of VCRD’s experts came in,” he said.
VCRD will not dictate what Vergennes does, Benton said.
“They don’t want to tell us what to do, but they want to guide us in a direction that is feasible,” he said.
VCRD will compile a record of the process, and also return in a year to evaluate the process.
“They will provide us with a summary of what we’ve done, and a map to go forward,” Benton said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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