About 100 people gather at the Missisquoi Valley Union cafeteria for the kick off of Northwest Regional Planning Commission’s Healthy People, Strong Communities project. Peter Costello from the Vermont Council on Rural Development facilitated the meeting, and he is seen above addressing the crowd. (Photo by Jessie Forand, St. Albans Messenger)

One hundred people turned out last Wednesday night to learn more about Healthy People, Strong Communities, a project to promote healthy lifestyles and a more vibrant economy for Franklin and Grand Isle counties.

The Northwest Regional Planning Commission kicked off the project at the Missisquoi Valley Union High School cafeteria, building enthusiasm for the wide-ranging and yet to be completely defined initiative.

NRPC Executive Director Catherine Dimitruk thanked members of a steering committee, which set up the vision for the effort, part of which will include some $200,000 in mini-grants for projects within the two counties.

NRPC also has a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is working with nearly 20 community organizations in this effort, including the Town of Georgia and Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.

Marilyn Savoy, of the Northwest Technical Center in St. Albans, summed up the public sentiment about her community and its prospects.

“I don’t worry about anything,” she said, “except we might think the government is going to fix our problems, instead of doing it ourselves.”

The session was an invitation for that kind of take-charge mentality.
Dimitruk said the speakers’ input would help set the strategy for how to move forward.

Paul Costello, of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, facilitated the meeting, which began with one of three questions asked of the audience:

Question 1: What do you value about life in Northwest Vermont? What do you worry about when you look to the future?

Responses varied, but participants spoke highly of their hometowns.

The list of local concerns included the observation that children don’t know how to deal with adversity and that parents, some no more than “grown-up kids,” according to one person, need help as well.

Others said there’s a lack of safe walking and biking routes.

A number of audience participants noted that the 30-and-under crowd isn’t involved in volunteering or community planning.

Mary Pickener of St. Albans Bay said she moved here after a long search for the right home, and while she enjoys life here, she worries about the expensive cost of living in Vermont. She added that her children might have to leave to support themselves.

Pickener was also worried about developments, which were “gobbling up” the pastoral land near her home.

Other concerns included the state of Lake Champlain, about keeping small farms viable, financial challenges facing senior citizens, drug addiction particularly among young people and how to care for veterans returning home from but scarred by war.

Question 2: What do we need to do to keep the region a place where everyone can live in health, safety and prosperity?

Transportation, economic development and volunteerism topped the list of needs in answer to this question.

Beth Crane, best known for her work with Franklin County Caring Communities, encouraged people to become mentors, and Jack Tremblay of St. Albans recommended if groups hope to involve younger people, they should promote incentives to grow their organizations.

Marilyn Grunewald, a former superintendent of schools in St. Albans, spoke of education, saying, “I truly believe in consolidation.” She added that curbing administrative costs can help address rising taxes.

Others, however, spoke up for small schools and the value and special care they provide in communities.

State Rep. Kathy Keenan (D-St. Albans) said the Healthy People, Safe Communities effort should begin by cataloging local resources to see how current offerings might be improved or expanded.

Rep. Michel Consejo, (D- Sheldon) said people should listen to the area’s young people.

“We are not good listeners,” he said.

The crowd last Wednesday was told that special sessions will be held with youths to get their input. Participants also called for more organized activities for area youngsters, from teen centers to recreation department offerings.

Question 3: What is your vision for the best future of your community and of Northwest Vermont?

Grunewald, the former school superintendent, said many homes and public space still don’t have Internet access. She advocated universal broadband to give children equal opportunities in schools.

Senate hopeful Caroline Bright, a Democrat from Georgia, agreed. Bright said expanding broadband would attract young people, and that could benefit local communities.

Savoy said the region should be a place where people can reach their potential, without “food police” telling them what to eat and without people telling students what to study in school. Northwest Vermont should be a place where individuals’ choices are respected, Savoy said.

Joanna Jerose, of Fairfield, said the region’s agricultural heritage should be preserved and local commerce should thrive without government involvement.
Denise Smith, of the Franklin Grand Isle United Way, wants to see a Greater St. Albans community, where local tax dollars aren’t used for lawsuits between the city and town.

Judy Ashley, director of the local Vermont Department of Health office, reminded people to follow last year’s United Way theme by celebrating what is right with the community.

“It takes money [to thrive], but it also takes will,” she said.

Costello concluded by saying “The power isn’t really in Montpelier. And the power isn’t really in Washington DC. The power is right here,” giving an impetus to an already-motivated group.

The Healthy People, Strong Communities initiative will continue with a “Health in All Policies” training session on October 3. The sessions will promote using health to make decisions and connections between food production and economic development.

To reserve a space or for more information about these daytime and evening meetings, contact Shaun Coleman at 524-5958 or scoleman@nrpcvt.com.

More information about the initiative is at the Northwest Regional Planning Commission’s website at www.nrpcvt.com/hud or on Facebook at facebook.com/healthyandstrongvt. The Independent will continue to provide updates about the initiative.