When the Chamber looks at economic development, which I believe is part of the mission of the Chamber, we should also consider community development. It is my belief that we cannot do one without the other. We must be a leader at the table for community development as much as economic development. Community economic development (CED) is a field of study that activates community involvement when working with government and private sectors to build strong communities, industries, and markets. Community economic development encourages using local resources in a way that enhances economic opportunities while improving social conditions in a sustainable way.
One of the biggest challenges our businesses continually experience when trying to attract young, talented workers is whether we can convince those talented workers that Bennington has a great, healthy community. This usually manifests itself in the quality of our health system, our education system, the safety of our town and the overall look and feel of our community.
The reality is, like most communities, we are a tale of two towns. One town boasts an affluent, well-educated and healthy community. The other, one we don't talk about enough, is unfortunately characterized by extreme poverty, malnourishment, homelessness, disenfranchisement and an under-educated workforce.
As we look to "lift the tide for all boats" here in Bennington and create a system with community economic development, the Chamber has dedicated some of our resources to the Project Catalyst initiative (as well as our ongoing commitment to the ACT 46 Study Committee).
Project Catalyst is a community development initiative set up by the Town of Bennington (replicating Rutland's Project Vision) as a way to tackle low-income sections of our community with a high density of drug-use, unemployment and poverty. Project Catalyst uses local resources to identify high-risk populations that have demonstrated an active drug issue. Through a multi-pronged approach, the goal of this Project is to reduce drug use and abuse, positively impact youth, and reduce blight across the community.
Project Catalyst has four objectives: reduce crime within identified areas associated with drug use and abuse; implement prevention strategies while increasing opportunities for individuals to receive necessary treatment; decrease blight within identified areas; and engage local residents, youth, property owners and businesses to play a positive role in the revitalization of identified neighborhoods. The Chamber feels that this initiative is important as a long-term strategy to economic growth in Bennington.
One of our first projects that we are partnering with the Project Catalyst team is assisting in their July 30th Block Party for Pleasant Street. On Saturday, vehicle traffic on Pleasant Street will be blocked between School Street and Park Street between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The party itself is between noon and 2 p.m., with a street cleanup effort starting at 1:30 p.m. The town is sponsoring the event and will provide bags for the Green-Up Day style cleaning. First-responders (fire, police, emergency) will be serving food to partygoers and there will be a number of family-friendly activities including music, a llama and pony petting zone, face painting and more. This Block Party was created as a direct response from survey work that has been done over the past year by the Town, as well as from ongoing communication with the residents. For more information and ways that you can become a partner with Project Catalyst visit www.project-catalyst.org.
As we look to redefine what a Chamber of Commerce is in this new generation, we look to areas where we can add value, where we can build community and where we can help strengthen the bonds between our citizens. In that effort I'm reminded of the line from Charles Dickens' book the Tale of Two Cities, "I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
Matt Harrington is the executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce.