MANCHESTER - A little over a year ago, on March 11, 2013, the first of three community forums fostered by the Vermont Council for Rural Development and the genesis for the Manchester 2020 program commenced.

Those meetings gave birth to the four committees trying to build a Manchester for the future: Small business incubator, higher education, river walk and bike paths. The committees have had a year to develop plans and implement them. Have they succeeded? Or is there more work to be done? Paul Costello is the executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development and said they came to Manchester not knowing what the issues were going to be. These community visits provide a forum for residents to set goals and gives them accesses to the resources they need to reach the goals they set for their communities.

Susan Minter, the deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, responds to a question during one of the forums held during last year’s
Susan Minter, the deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, responds to a question during one of the forums held during last year's "Community Visit." The forums were part of an initiative to identify issues and opportunities for Manchester and the surrounding area. (Journal File Photo)

Costello said the meetings started with listening sessions.

"The good ideas were brought back to the group and we put them all up on the wall," he said. "Most [of the ideas] were realistic in terms if getting them done." Costello said Manchester's greatest resource through this process is the commitment to community and local energy.

Brian Keefe, chair of group overall, said that there has been progress committee by committee, mostly due to the work of the committees and their chairs.

"They've been the real stellar performers in all this," he said.

The biggest challenge facing Manchester and this project going forward, he said, is the economy of scale. Because Manchester is a small town, Keefe said that making some of these goals happen - like potentially having a college campus in or around town - can be difficult.

The river walk is one of the committees that have seen great success. In October of last year, they received a grant from the National Parks Service in the form of services of Jennifer Waite [Waite works for the park services and can help connect the river walk committee to resources they need], Bill Laberge, committee chair said. The group is also in the process of becoming a 501c3 non-profit and will soon begin fundraising.

"We've brought in a landscape architect, Landworks, to take our vision that we had and make it happen physically," Laberge said.

The group also has goals of connecting the two paths on each side of the river with a bridge, educational signs and gates at the start of the river walk. There is also a hope to somehow connect the river walk to the town green.

Tricia Hayes, communications director for Manchester 2020, said the bike group led by Ellen Ogden has been working very closely with the Manchester Bike Club and have created maps. They are also placing bike racks around town and a fix-it station at the chamber of commerce.

While the bike path and river walk committee have reached some of the goals, or will, once spring begins, the larger, more complicated projects - higher education and business incubator - are still works in progress.

Jen Hyatt, higher education committee chair, said the group has found that bringing a satellite campus or college to Manchester does not seem to be economically sustainable. However, she is still in talks with the New England Culinary Institute to try and build a relationship with them.

The group instead is focusing on building a website, which they hope to be live by late this summer or early fall that will help connect learners and educators in the area.

"You can see all the educational options available [there will be a] search or enter what you want [to learn] and it will point you in the right direction of where to go," Hyatt said. "You can also post class requests so it has a social networking for education aspect."

Hyatt and the committee got the funding to build the site from the Vermont Digital Economy Project and one of her goals is to help make the site financially sustainable.

The business incubator has also seen their goals evolve. John Conte, chair of the committee, said they have moved away from looking for a physical space. The new Manchester Community Library also has space available for business people. When it opens this fall, there will be "touch down" workspaces for rent, as well as a conference room with telecommunications capabilities. Conte said the library might provide the space the community needs.

"The demand or need has yet to be determined and, with no budget, we really have no means of establishing a co-working space on our own," he said in an email. "It will take more town and state input along with interest from an independent business person to make it happen. But we will hopefully have all the leg work done in advance."

Instead, the group is now working on an online resource, which they hope to be live at the end of May, for anyone wanting to start a business in the Manchester area. This effort will be incorporated in the town's website, as well as the Manchester and the Mountains Chamber of Commerce.

John O'Keefe, town manager, said the Manchester 2020 process has helped to bring together the community. There were topics that came up, like sustainability, that were not apart of the final four goals, but still important to consider.

"The community picked things that were tangible," O'Keefe said. "There's no finish line to any of these projects. I don't see any of the projects picked as something definite."