By Paul Costello
The temptation with bad news, like that of the closing of Green Mountain College, is to sit on one’s hands, paralyzed by structural change beyond immediate local control. The alternative is to come together, line up strategies and do what is in your power to move your community forward. That is just what the community of Poultney has done and is doing. They deserve a great deal of credit and praise for their dedication, collaboration, leadership, and hard work.
The closure of Green Mountain College is an enormous blow to a small town like Poultney. There are ideas in the works around the future of the campus, with potential developers behind the scenes evaluating potential offerings or services that could fit into the space. There may be a day when the campus is revived with dynamic activities and economic energy, but until then, the impressive story today is about the resilience and leadership of people in this community who are setting direction and driving forward.
In the immediate wake of the news of the closing, the town came together to wrestle with the difficult situation. The fate of the school, and the future of the campus itself were beyond the immediate power of the community or the municipality. Over 300 people came together, however, over several months to line up points of vision, decide top priorities, gear up, and take action for the future of the town and its economy. They are also working to make the community as attractive as possible for future owner/operators of the GMC campus.
Led by Ted Brady, deputy secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development; Paul Donaldson, town and village manager; the Selectboard; and village trustees, and supported by the Vermont Council on Rural Development, a strategic planning process framed locally determined goals and work plans and geared up five active task forces.
Led by the Poultney Comes Together steering committee, these citizen groups work to:
Expand trails, biking and outdoor recreation opportunities as an economic driver for Poultney’s future.
Develop a Poultney co-working space and incubator for new startup businesses, and invite newcomers to the town.
Develop or attract a new bank or credit union in town.
Improve broadband infrastructure.
And boost Poultney’s downtown.
Some of these efforts may take years, but already new biking trails are providing new options for local recreation, connecting regional networks with the downtown and Lake St. Catherine … and potentially building a major attraction for tourists in the future. The co-working/makers space team is working hard to identify and gear up the right space to support entrepreneurs and nurture creative businesses. The downtown team is supporting existing businesses (check out their weekly sales at Friday Night Frolics), working to attract a pharmacy, planning for a pub and brewery, and evaluating potential fiscal and regulatory incentives to support new business development. And there’s already a great new taco restaurant downtown and a hemp processing facility, and a new café is in the works for Main Street. The broadband group is evaluating gaps and planning toward a downtown WiFi zone. Meanwhile, the town has brought people together to celebrate with the Rotary Club Chili Cookout and a townwide garage sale that brought people in from across the region.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Poultney is not going away. It is not failing. Poultney is a wonderful place with incredible natural and community assets led by people who are taking power over their future. They are not giving up; far from it. They are rallying together, with support from the state, our congressional delegation, and all the agencies with the power to help. But it is the local leadership and local citizens working to seed the next phase of their economy that deserve our best praise, thanks, and support.
Paul Costello is the executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. This commentary was published in VTDigger on Dec. 29.