BARRE — Armed with ideas from a series of lively forums, Granite City residents went beyond brainstorming Wednesday night — setting the stage for three ongoing discussions that had Mayor Lucas brimming with optimism Herring Thursday morning.
“All of these ideas come at the right time,” Herring said of proposals to launch a housing task force, improve access to Barre’s rivers and develop a community center.
Now comes the hardest part as Herring and dozens of others – some in person and others online – were briefed as the Vermont Rural Development Council completed a three-stage “community tour” at the municipal auditorium of Barre.
The session opened with new VCRD Executive Director Brian Lowe welcoming a “Visitor Team” capable of bringing federal, state and regional resources to the table and offering expertise that could help Barre make take forward the three initiatives resulting from the community process. .
Lowe noted that the process had reached an important turning point as those who registered for one of the three working groups prepared to meet for the first time.
“Tonight is really action,” he said. “Tonight is about taking those different ideas and developing … concrete steps, with the help of these experts from across the state, to help make (them) realities in Barre.”
During an evening where participants were asked about their vision for a future Barre, they advanced on all three fronts in separate meetings that marked both a beginning and an end.
Some have gathered to talk about barriers to increasing housing in Barre and discuss ways to improve its existing housing stock. Others engaged in a “sky’s the limit” conversation about their river-rich city and how to make the most of these underutilized natural assets. A third group – which included Herring – embarked on what will hopefully be a long discussion about a community center. It was the one that ended with working group participants agreeing that a clear vision was needed when it came to the ill-defined project.
None of the three groups got very far. All need more information which will require additional community engagement and one of the three VCRD facilitators noted that the training wheels had just come off.
“At this point, it shifts to the community,” Jenna Koloski said, noting that this is the point in the program that VCRD has run more than 80 times over the years, where VCRD steps back and the community steps up.
VCRD will still write a report and action plan based on the community visit and continue to serve in what Koloski called a “resource and referral” capacity.
“Call us when you need us,” she said, noting that VCRD can help you with everything from identifying funding sources and writing grants to setting up links to agencies and non-profit organizations that were part of the visiting team.
However, while Koloski said VCRD was “happy to help,” bringing Barre’s big ideas to fruition will largely depend on Barre.
Renita Marshall, who served as chair of the All in for Barre initiative which was delayed due to the pandemic, said she believes the community is up to it.
“When we come together, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish,” she said, checking off a list of examples and ending with instructions for meeting attendees.
“Let’s get to work,” she said.
More than two hours later, Lowe offered some parting words to the attendees: “urgency, uncertainty and optimism.”
“I think there’s a real urgency right now where we have real opportunities,” he said, predicting that Barre was positioning itself to take advantage of the availability of unprecedented federal funding by getting organizing behind common goals.
Lowe said it was a good first step, but it didn’t guarantee success.
“I think it would be foolish not to recognize all the uncertainty that comes with taking on such a monumental task,” he said. “It’s an inherent part of democracy (but) it puts a huge burden on local leaders to step up and bring about change in their community.”
Although VCRD has conducted dozens of community visits to cities and towns across Vermont, Lowe noted that Barre was his first and he had a good feel for the process.
“I’m leaving with real optimism about this community,” he said. “It was wonderful getting to know so many people in the community and seeing what can happen here.
Herring said he shared that optimism. As the city actively explored downtown development options, talk of housing and a community center, whether it served the young, the elderly, or both, were hot topics. Regarding the river, he noted that the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps made a down payment on improving access to the Stevens Branch over the summer, improving a trail that runs along the Stevens Branch near the Rotary Park.
“Now is a great time to have these conversations,” he said.
Only one of the three working groups chose a chair on Wednesday and none have scheduled a second meeting, although all plan to meet again in the coming weeks and months.