GNAT Dispatch: Arlington renewal project makes next step

ARLINGTON — Anyone with a good idea is welcome.

That was one of the points Col. James Baker, a former commander of the Vermont State Police and a long-time Arlington resident, sought to pound home to an audience of roughly 60 people who turned out for a second meeting of the Arlington Area Renewal Project at the Arlington Memorial High School Tuesday, Nov. 7. The initiative, which may be in the market for another name, aims to highlight the positives and seek solutions for a town some residents feel is facing challenges.

"We say no to no one," Baker, who has been tapped to provide leadership to the project, said near the start of the meeting. "If you have an idea you think is going to make the town better . No is not in our dialogue."

The meeting, one of a series of planned monthly gatherings of residents following a kick-off meeting Sept. 22 when the initiative was launched, focused primarily on organizational issues. Six committees, covering town government, arts, history and tourism, education, recreation, public safety and economic development, have been formed and chairpersons named.

Tuesday's meeting was a chance for area residents interested in being part of the project to meet in smaller groups and begin discussing the directions the committees should take.

But first, the townspeople heard Baker give an overview of the project, with a nod towards the Arlington high school's girls soccer teams' recently undefeated state championship season as an accomplishment that showed the town's character off in its best light. The team capped off their season with a 3-0 state championship win over Proctor High School Saturday, Nov. 3.

"This town needed that," Baker said, adding that "something magical" happened on the field. The team demonstrated a "social contract" with the rest of the town, showing that with strong teamwork and a commitment to playing skillfully and fairly, success was possible.

"We have a social contract with each other to make the town a better place to live," Baker said.

He then introduced the night's guest speaker, John Werner, the long-time varsity boys soccer coach who is considered by many townspeople to be the "father of Arlington soccer."

Werner, who is battling cancer, recounted how he had come to Arlington in 1972 as recent college graduate to teach chemistry and coach soccer. He became the head coach the following year and began building the soccer program not only in Arlington but around the county as well. Youth soccer programs were developed, lights installed at the Recreation Park field where the teams played, and many successful seasons followed.

How you got there was as, if not more, important than the final result, Werner said.

"You're not going to win every game, but if you play the right way you're never going to lose," Werner told the audience. "At the end of the day, it's the people of Arlington that make Arlington great," he said, concluding his talk to a standing ovation.

Each meeting of the renewal project will feature a special guest speaker for expertise in a certain area or for motivation, which seemed Werner's role Tuesday night.

The audience then broke up into the six committees in nearby classrooms. Most of the conversations dealt with introductions, organizational questions and what interested individuals to serve on that particular committee.

Membership in the committees was to be kept fluid and flexible Baker said, when the committees reconvened at the Mack Performing Arts Center. People could opt out of one committee and into another, depending on their interests.

The six chairmen of the committees gave summaries of the discussions that had taken place in the classrooms.

"We went over a list we came up with to look into," said Todd Wilkens, the chairman of the public safety committee. "We gave ourselves some homework to go back out and come up with more things and at our next meeting we're going to try to prioritize those for the group."

Hooper Pickering, the chairman of the Recreation Committee, had one of the larger groups of people assemble in his classroom. Conveying to the rest of the town how the park works was one topic they discussed, he told the rest of the audience.

"The first goal of the committee is to sort of work on communication and outreach," he said. "And find out which groups are involved with the Rec Park, who's working with the Rec Park and how we can maximize opportunities at the Rec Park."

The committee will be looking at other recreation opportunities beyond the Rec Park, possibly on town lands, or other places for hiking or mountain biking, he said.

Allan Tschorn, the owner of Chem Clean, a gas station and equipment rental business, arrived at the meeting not expecting to be named the chairman of the Economic Development Committee, but left the building later that evening in that role. He said that after the previous meeting in September, he had gone around the town and counted 140 different businesses of one sort or another, often small, home-based ones that might not always be highly visible. A check with the Secretary of State's office indicated there were more than 600 registered businesses in the area, more than many might have thought, he said.

"I was kind of taken by the number of businesses that are already here, that kind of goes unnoticed or undetected," he said. "That's a tremendous amount of activity that's going on that's kind of not being observed."

There's strength to built around making others aware of what skills and expertise already exist and how that network could be boosted further, he said. It would be unfortunate to overlook existing businesses that are already here while pursuing other businesses from elsewhere to relocate in Arlington, he added.

Identifying what is already here will be their committee's likely starting point, he said.

He also suggested that it might be useful to develop a sound communication strategy that might feature some "good old-fashioned neighbor-to-neighbor, over the fence" conversations, since not everyone read the same newspapers or media.

Baker picked up on that thought when he made his closing remarks, with one possible step being the creation of a Facebook page to go with the verbal communication.

Baker will still be dividing his time between Arlington and Washington D.C., where he will be working with an association of police chiefs, until January. Next month's meeting in December may well be dominated by education issues as the local school board has to make a landing on where it will go in terms of an Act 46 merger decision. To date, Arlington has been unable to secure a merger consolidation partner, and may face the prospect of turning to the state's education agency to determine its eventual status.

Baker thought it was a good sign that so many people turned out for a second meeting, showing that there was genuine interest and enthusiasm behind the effort.

"It's not about trying to remake something, it's not about being discouraged about what's going on," he said. "It's time to bring that social fabric back."

Andrew McKeever is the News Director at Greater Northshire Access Television (GNAT-TV.)


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