SWANTON — For a town looking to come together as a community to better itself, Swanton seems off to a pretty good start.
About 100 residents, neighbors, organizers, former and current legislators, local and state officials, young children and teenagers and parents and grandparents all sat, listened and talked together at the Swanton Community Meeting, held at Swanton Village Offices Thursday evening.
The meeting, facilitated by the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD), was the second in the Community Visit Program process for Swanton. The first took place on Jan. 28, when more than 200 people attended nine different sessions over 13.5 hours to discuss visions for Swanton with officials.
The VCRD took what was said at that January meeting, distilled it into 20 points of vision for Swanton, and brought those to Thursday’s meeting.
“It’s the night to say… ‘What are the best ideas?’” said VCRD Executive Director Paul Costello.
Through a two and a half hour process of discussion, voting with little stickers, advocating for action ideas and voting again, the participants hammered out four main, prioritized points of vision for the Swanton Community on Thursday:
- Improve river access, better outdoor recreation opportunities, and expand bike tourism and bike-ability;
- Build a Swanton Economic Development Committee;
- Improve traffic, walk-ability and parking downtown;
- Unite the community to reduce substance abuse
Costello emphasized the importance of Swanton advocating for itself as a community. It has already done this by garnering the VCRD Community Visit, Costello said, and Swanton will need to continue to be vocal to see any community visions come to fruition.
“It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease in this world,” said Costello. “Bottom line, it’s all about local leadership.”
Thursday’s meeting began with opening remarks by Swanton Selectboard Vice Chair Joel Clark, Costello, and Community Visit Chair Molly Lambert. Molly and her husband, Hank, are the local organizers for the Community Visit Process as a whole.
Costello told attendees there community was among the 40 or so in Vermont to receive the free guidance and facilitation through VCRD. He added that his organization was simply there to facilitate – Swanton community members would have to do the rest.
“My job is to work for you tonight,” said Costello. “You know better than we do about the future of Swanton and what community projects should be done.”
Audience members then stood up and said one or two sentences about what they wanted for Swanton. Included were a safe community for children and the elderly, good jobs, a sense of belonging, high-quality schools, more retail development, a community resource for communication, a merging of the town and village, better night life, and other suggestions.
Several Missisquoi Valley Union Middle & High School students also had their say. According to 14-year-old Austin Moss, they were there to support the Swanton Teen Center, positive spaces for young people, and community-wide support to reduce drug abuse among local students.
“We need a place to hang out … other than our backyard,” said Moss. “I know a lot of my friends – they just do drugs for fun. If they had places to go, they probably wouldn’t do as much.”
With the suggestions and testimonies of a diverse set of community members, Costello said the VCRD was in a good place to move forward.
“We’re going to gather these things and put them together in a statement,” said Costello. He added that this statement would be part of a 45-page report and action plan for Swanton, based on the January and Thursday meetings.
Completion of the report is planned for May.
The next step of last night’s meeting was to designate the focal points for Swanton’s community so those items could come to fruition. The VCRD put together 20 suggested ideas following the first meeting, and those ideas would have to be whittled down to four.
In Woodstock, for example, the VCRD process helped the community decide its agricultural component was the most fundamental focus of the area. A year later, Woodstock created a non-profit to support and promote local agriculture.
“It’s the time you get to say what’s most important,” said Costello. “It’s going to be a democratic process.”
He added, “The challenge is you can’t possibly do all these things at once.”
Before asking meeting attendees to vote – using a system of sticker dots – Costello emphasized that choosing only a few ideas to put into action did not mean the others were getting thrown out. Rather, they would be folded into the main priorities.
Costello also asked if any ideas were left out of the voting pool. Judy Paxman pointed out that one of the ideas – an arts council – had already been put into motion. That idea was then taken off the wall.
Swanton Planning Commission Chair Jim Hubbard made a suggestion to add “Improving the Port of Entry” as an idea. He said he felt the port of entry had a big impact on tourism – and many other things – in the area.
The meeting attendees then voted in two rounds, advocating for what they felt should be chosen in-between votes. Four themes emerged from that discussion, and ended up forming the final ideas to be worked on in Swanton: recreation, economic development, improving downtown traffic, parking and walking and reducing substance abuse.
As the buzzing of chatter, laughter and discussion among meeting attendees died down after the second vote, Costello congratulated the Swanton community on its accomplishments thus far.
“It may be fun in parts, but it’s serious work that happened here tonight,” he said. “How proud you must all feel as you sit next to your friends and neighbors and know that they care as much about this community as you do.”
“But,” he added, “there’s more work to be done. And a lot of it depends on you.”
Costello told the audience it needed to work to bring more people into the process. “All of the outreach that you can do,” he said. “Please do that.”
At the end of the meeting, attendees rushed to sign up to be on the committees that will carry out the four chosen ideas. Those who signed up – and anyone else that wants to – will meet with state experts, leaders and organizers chosen by the VCRD, said Costello, for their abilities in the four chosen areas.
“We’ll advise and support as the community comes up with the beginning of an action plan,” said Costello.
Then, following that April meeting, the final committees will work for a year on their respective projects. At that point, with hope from the VCRD, committee members and the community as a whole, there will be changes in Swanton for the better.