The enthusiasm for and love of their town was palpable among the many Rochester residents who gathered at Pierce Hall Wednesday evening, July 31 for a dessert potluck and public forum entitled “Envision Rochester’s Future,” hosted by the Envision Rochester Steering Committee.
Committee member Dan McKinley welcomed everyone and facilitated the meeting, which began with speaker Vic Ribaudo, Envision co-founder and steering committee member.
“I live in a small Vermont town with a classic village center where on any give day, I can enjoy great conversations, live music, restaurant choices, and a beautiful agricultural landscape,” Ribaudo noted. “But, on the down side, our population is aging and shrinking and our beloved high school closed. I love Rochester, but worry that we’ll lose more than our high school, businesses will struggle, etc.”
A member of the Rochester Budget Committee, he also spoke about property tax rates.
“If we want to attract young families, we have a choice—do nothing or work on doing something about it,” Ribaudo added. “No one else will do it for us. Envision Rochester is planning to bring the whole town together to improve our town—working together, we can succeed.”
Rachel Cunningham, Envision co-founder and steering committee member, spoke next, noting “Rochester is my new hometown. Envision Rochester’s aim is to celebrate and strengthen our town and set goals. We want to make living here more attractive to small businesses and young families.”
“The idea of community development should not be confused with land development,” she added. “Economic development is about improving the well-being of all the residents.”
Advice from TRORC
Tory Littlefield, a regional planner with the Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Commission who has been working with the Rochester Planning Commissions on the new town plan, noted that TRORC is “a political subdivision of the state, covering 30 municipalities. Change occurs slowly in Vermont. Data shows that many Vermonters leave for college and come back in their 30s and 40s.”
She pointed out that there are a lot of available resources, such as grants, for towns to use in working on community development, and state agencies can be good resources, along with TRORC, which administers and applies for grants on behalf of towns. She cited the community Development Block Grants that TRORC had gotten for the Bean’s Bridge reconstruction and Park House updates, as well as assistance with post-Irene recovery efforts.
Asked about the possibility of getting grants to address the problem of the large stock of older housing in town, Littlefield said she was aware of some qualified funding to address weatherizing issues, etc.
Bob Haynes, director of the Green Mountain Economic Development Corporation, noted, “We own three commercial properties in this district, including the Advanced illuminations building in Rochester and the LEDdynamics building in Randolph. Right now, we’re working with a community group in Chelsea trying to purchase a local store.
“We want to grow our towns, but not too fast,” he said. “We want to keep our schools and community organizations. Our goal is to ensure vibrancy in our communities and support them. We’re working diligently with housing authorities to support solar applications, etc., in recognition of climate change.”
What Bethel Did
Lylee Rauch-Kacenski, founder and co-owner of the Arnold Block, LLC and a member of the Bethel Revitalization Initiative, gave an enthusiastic presentation on her experiences with Building a Better Bethel, sharing a quick overview of “what we’ve learned along the way.”
She noted that Bethel’s problems after “Irene” were the impetus for forming community groups to revitalize the town. The Forward Festival was re-started in September 2012 and many kinds of community events were an outgrowth of Bethel University. BU has grown so much that by 2018, people from all over the state came there to take 55 different courses.
Also, with the help of the state, TRORC, and AARP, there was a Bethel Better Block event over a weekend, with enhanced crosswalks, “pop-up” shops, a bike lane, “little library” in an a former phone booth, and hikes to town forests, that were ongoing at other times. She called the Arnold Block a “community business incubator.”
“Let the community tell you what is missing,” Rauch-Kacenski advised. “Use many avenues for outreach and give people many ways to be involved. Make an inventory of groups in your town and investigate grants and other funding resources.”
During the question-and-answer period, concern was expressed about the number of aging residents, and the National Council on Aging was mentioned as a good resource.
Asked when the committee will begin working on specific projects, Cunningham said, “We’re waiting for community feedback to create a vision.”
Ribaudo said that some of the ideas from brainstorming sessions included attracting businesses appropriate to the community, improved housing options, daycare, high-speed WiFi, supporting agriculture, and options for hospitality and outdoor recreation.
Marvin Harvey rose to make a plea for revitalizing fishing in the White River and hunting; Burma Cassidy spoke about getting volunteer drivers for those who need rides to medical appointments, etc.; and Angus McKusker gave a plug for the RASTA and Velomont Trail network and other recreational opportunities in the valley.
Dean Mendell spoke about building SkateSpace 30 years ago and said the Recreation Committee needs some help to update that facility next to the school. He would like to move a dugout from the former school ballfield by the tennis courts to Skatespace for use as a warming hut.
Others spoke about the need to upgrade the sidewalks to make the village more pedestrian-friendly, and noted Rochester’s unique assets, such as the White River, Green Mt. National Forest, and the arts community.
Kinley Tener of RASTA said the whole valley is a community that he dubbed “quintessentially Quin- Town,” and that he envisions “a nice river-walk trail” in the valley. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, but the center of everything,” he added.
Ribaudo said they hope to kick off activities in the fall. Brainstorming sessions will be scheduled over the next several months. Anyone who would like to volunteer to help out in any way or would like more information, should contact Rachel Cunningham at firstname.lastname@example.org.