Michelle Monroe, St. Albans Messenger
SWANTON — The Swanton community needs to tell the world about the things it has to offer and at the same time improve communication within the community, so more people are aware of options and resources. That was a widely expressed view at Wednesday’s visit by the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD).
There were more than 200 people at the free community dinner last night and nine individual sessions throughout the day and evening drew as many as 60 to discuss various aspects of the community’s present and future from education to economic development to drug use.
“We’re quiet about everything and we don’t boast,” said local realtor Kristine Stell. “We have to brag.”
The outside world needs to know about Swanton’s recreational opportunities, it’s quaint downtown, it’s improving schools and teen center as well as the open stretches available for economic development, in the eyes of many in attendance.
One woman who had relocated from Chittenden County to Swanton said people couldn’t understand why she chose to live and work in Swanton. “A lot of people don’t know what we have,” she said during the discussion on economic development.
Transportation and the need for stable, good-paying jobs were part of that discussion, as well as questions about how to engage more people in Swanton’s planning efforts.
The town is about to begin its next five-year plan and planning commissioner Ross Lavoie suggested that if more people participated “we might have a better product.”
There is a need for public transportation to connect people to jobs, said one woman, who described her son’s frustration at getting one temporary job with a local manufacturer after another but not being able to get jobs except through temp agencies.
A member of the town selectboard also suggested the town and village should have a point person focused on supporting existing businesses and attracting new ones.
One of the best-attended forums was a discussion of community health and substance abuse.
Swanton Police Chief Leonard “Joey” Stell said heroin and marijuana are now cheaper than beer. “Prices have crashed tremendously,” he said. In states where marijuana has been legalized the illicit trade is outselling the legal trade, because of lower prices, he said.
Asked about illegal drug use, Stell put it at five to 10 percent of the community. “That is still way too many people,” he said.
A woman with a family member who had struggled with addiction said, “It takes a total lifestyle change to come up out of that … relapse is part of that.” The more support systems are available the likelier the chance of success, she added.
At the end of the meeting held last night at Missisquoi Valley Union middle and high school, Kristen Prior, field services director for the Agency of Human Services, said she had “three pages of very actionable ideas and things that can happen.”
“I think there’s so many positive things we can’t go anywhere but forward,” she said.
That group identified existing resources and gaps. Paul Costello of VCRD suggested creating a task force on community health to move forward with the suggestions made by the group is a likely next step for Swanton.
Sixty people attended the discussion on downtown development that took place earlier in the afternoon.
Jon-Michael Muise the area director for USDA Rural Development was impressed with the discussion. “I felt I’d want to move here after hearing all the merchants talk about what they have here,” he said.
One business owner described the employment experience opportunities she offers to students at Missisquoi Valley Union. She urged others to consider doing the same. Muise was impressed. “The future of a community is going to be the kids,” he said.
Truck traffic was one of the largest concerns expressed at that meeting. At the same time the community identified a lot of assets on which it can build. “This community’s got the ingredients for success,” said Muise.
However, one of the themes of the visit, he felt, was the silos in which people are operating with a need for more sharing of information.
Molly Lambert, co-chair of the steering committee for the visit, said, “This is a very, very good beginning.”
“We can make a difference in our community,” she said.
Yesterday’s discussions were just the beginning of the process. Next, the community visit team will review the suggestions made at all nine forums and cluster them into groups. They will come back on March 5 for a 6:30 p.m. meeting at the Swanton Village Complex.
At that meeting, the community visit team will present the most frequently mentioned ideas and the ones that are doable to the community, which will then set priorities.
The step after that will be to create action steps and identify community members willing to work on those items.
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Yesterday’s VCRD visit afternoon sessions covered this topics: Vibrant Downtown, Community Recreation Facilities, Future of Agriculture, Swanton’s History & Culture, Education & Training and Growth & Development. Following a community dinner in the MVU Commons Room, individual breakout sessions continued with Tourism, Waters & Wildlife, Community Health & Substance Abuse, and Jobs & Economic Opportunity.