County forum sizes up steps to COVID recovery

COVID is making us more disconnected. There is lots of suffering and pain in our communities.
— Richard Amore

ADDISON COUNTY — When state leaders convened a COVID-19 recovery forum in Addison County in September, two major themes emerged: Local networks are strong, but fatigue is setting in.
“I think there was real excitement about how hard we’ve all worked together,” said WomenSafe Executive Director Kerri Duquette-Hoffman, who attended the Sept. 17 forum and spoke to the Independent afterward. “But it’s like playing Whac-a-Mole. We move from crisis to crisis. A lot of people are putting in a lot of extra effort, but this isn’t sustainable for the long haul.”
The Zoom forum was organized by the Local Support and Community Action Team from Gov. Scott’s Economic Mitigation and Recovery Task Force, which is meeting with leaders from each of the state’s 14 counties to learn about what is being done on the ground and what can be replicated and shared statewide.
“The fundamental goal is to learn from people in the county about some of the good things going forward and the best practices that we could then both put online and also to share with other counties and potentially share with the governor,” said Paul Costello, the Action Team Lead and executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD).
Four breakout groups focused on:
•  Business support and recovery.
•  Building community unity. 
•  Telecommunications.
•  Family and individual needs, including housing, food, heat, healthcare and childcare.
VCRD and Action Team members reported on what they heard.

“It’s hard to come up with a universal characterization of what the challenges are for businesses, because they’re so distinct for each business,” said Jon Copans, who is the Climate Economy Model Communities Program Director for the VCRD. 
One thing many business owners share in common is fatigue, Copans suggested.
“There’s so much information coming at folks in terms of webinars and opportunities, and the truth is (in our breakout group) it was mostly service providers, not businesses, and that’s sort of an indication that business owners have limited capacity to have some of these conversations.”
Going forward, “one-on-one engagement with business owners (will be) important to get a feel for what the needs are,” he said.
One bright spot Copans highlighted was the collaborations happening between local organizations and Middlebury College interns.
Richard Amore, planning and outreach manager for the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, highlighted another: local responses, including marketing efforts by Neighbors, Together and the Better Middlebury Partnership, to the rail tunnel project that has disrupted and at times shut down downtown Middlebury.

County residents, like their state and national neighbors, face several challenges to building community unity, such as “Vermont exceptionalism” (including the idea that it takes several generations to make a “real” Vermonter), systemic racism and the challenges of school consolidation and closure, said Amore.
“COVID is making us more disconnected,” he said. “There is lots of suffering and pain in our communities.”
VCRD Community and Policy Manager Jenna Koloski agreed.
“People who are elderly, people who live alone, single moms and migrant workers in the county are facing more isolation than even before,” she said.
But the pandemic has also created strong bonds. Amore cited several examples, including: 
•  The partnership between the town of Middlebury, Porter Medical Center and Middlebury College, which have leaned on each other for support and information sharing during the pandemic.
•  Addison County Mutual Aid, which is run by local volunteers who connect people in need with people who can help.
•  A lively and active arts scene, including virtual performances via Town Hall Theater, Middlebury College’s Mahaney Arts Center and other local venues.
•  IDEAL Middlebury, which pursues anti-racist work and which has approached the Middlebury selectboard about advancing racial equity and discussions around system racism.
Cheryl Mitchell, a New Haven member of the Addison County Recovery Team, and Kurt Broderson of Middlebury Community Television cited informal “patio” or “backyard” conversations about creative solutions to increasing costs and declining enrollment in the county’s public schools.

Koloski echoed Duquette-Hoffman’s concerns.
“A really big theme right now is a lack of predictability,” Koloski said. “As things change, you’re having to shift constantly, and that’s costly and it takes additional support, and that’s a significant challenge right now.”
Happily, there is a long list of effective strategies that are today being employed in Addison County.
“This could really have been a dismal conversation and instead it was incredibly uplifting about the amount of collaboration, the folks that have come together in this county,” Koloski said. “The term ‘stepping up’ came up a lot — people are stepping up to fill these roles.”
Cheryl Mitchell credited much of that to Fred Kenney of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, who leads the Addison County Recovery Team.
“Addison County’s Recovery Team is very active,” she told the Independent after the forum. “The business community and the educational community and the healthcare community all communicate with one another.”
When Vermont Agency of Human Services Director of Field Services Paul Dragon pointed out that there is federal and state funding for Addison County that isn’t being used, Duquette-Hoffman wasn’t surprised.
“One thing about our county, our work: We don’t want to take resources from another agency that might need it,” she told the Independent. “I think this is reflective of our habit of looking out for each other.” But, she added, “if we’re all having that mindset, we need to make sure we’re not leaving resources on the table that people could have used.”

“The pandemic has brought out and magnified a lot of problems with internet connectivity that already existed.” said Weybridge resident Fran Putnam in an interview with the Independent. “Middlebury, Bristol and Vergennes have good service, but not rural places. Students are struggling with connectivity for remote learning.”
Low-income residents are feeling these effects the most.
Some pandemic relief funding has been made available to households that need better connectivity, but much of that money will run out at the end of the year, said VCRD Community and Policy Associate Nick Kramer at the forum.
“There is a tension between meeting folks’ basic needs now — telehealth, remote learning, etc. — but also setting us up for the long term,” Kramer said.
One solution communities are trying is a Communications Union District (CUD), an organization of two or more towns that join together as a municipal entity to build communication infrastructure together. 
This summer the towns of Ferrisburgh, Leicester, New Haven, Monkton and Salisbury voted to form one. Weybridge residents are thinking about trying to get their town to join it, Putnam said.
Service providers are also struggling to provide normal services to people without internet, Mitchell said. Those that serve rural and low-income communities can’t just circulate online surveys to find out what people need. They’re having to print and distribute paper questionnaires.

“It’s sometimes hard to get a handle on the effects of the pandemic,” Putnam told the Independent. “It was nice to have a broader view of things than just what’s happening in your back yard. I thought the forum worked well. We should have another one.”
At the forum’s conclusion Costello shared a little bit about what his Action Team has observed in other counties.
“You see and you hear from these conversations: fatigue,” he said. “Behind the scenes there’s the tension and desperation of wanting to do better around things like the racial strife in our country, the underlying anxieties around climate change, the fires, the hurricane, the electoral division that we face in this country.
“We also hear from people in these calls that are planning with great urgency for a future that we don’t really know, and that produces anxiety and fatigue. We just are struggling to hold it together.
“We get it,” Costello told Addison County residents. “We’re with you. We know that we’re in a time when people are on the line, and we have to stand together with courage, with common faith, with confidence. We are going to come out of this storm. We are making a difference today.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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