The year that was 2018


MANCHESTER — As 2018 comes to an end and 2019 beckons, the Journal looks back at the top stories of the year.

Election brings strong turnout, change

What 2018 lacked in contested races in the Northshire, its competitive races made up for in drama.

Democrat Kathleen James of Manchester, a first-time candidate, mounted a well-supported campaign for the two Bennington-4 district seats held by longtime incumbent Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington) and first-term Republican Brian Keefe (R-Manchester).

The race featured a contrast of styles and backgrounds. Keefe, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords, pointed to his successes in his first term, his government experience and his commitment to controlling taxes and fees. James, a journalist and community organizer, emphasized her commitment to equal opportunity for all Vermonters and addressing climate change. And Browning, an Arlington Select Board member and advocate for the Battenkill, touted her experience in fiscal policy and her sharp eye for the granular detail of state policy.

In the end, James won the overall vote in the four-town district, and rolled up a big win in Manchester, while Browning took the remaining three towns and outpolled Keefe by about 200 votes overall.

James, a graduate of the Emerge Vermont program for first-time woman Democratic candidates, was organized and well-funded from the start.

"A lot of us have been working very hard since the 2016 elections to put forward a different vision of America," James said election night as the results filtered in. "Personally, I want to be part of a national movement to heal this country and bridge the partisan divide. I truly believe that happens one conversation at a time."

Keefe said he didn't think he had given voters a reason to send him home, and theorized that the unpopularity of Donald Trump in Vermont hurt Republicans across the state regardless of whether they share anything else in common with the president.

"I think there's some hostility to anyone who has an R beside their name, even someone moderate and independent like myself, who presents balance. I think people voted the party, which is fine," Keefe said after the election.

It appeared that Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage might also face hurdles on the road to re-election, as she faced a Democratic primary challenge from Dorset attorney Arnie Gottlieb. Marthage earned a solid victory in the Aug. 14 primary, and won in November, beating Gottlieb and her former top prosecutor, Christina Rainville, who both ran as independents in the general election.

In statewide elections, a pair of Bennington County newcomers jumped in the ring to run against incumbent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Independent Brad Peacock of Shaftsbury got into the race early, and was joined in the summer by Republican Lawrence Zupan of Manchester, who finished second in the GOP primary and was named the party's nominee when the primary winner withdrew from the race. Both Peacock and Zupan were critical of Sanders for declining multiple invitations to debate them on the issues. Sanders, arguably the state's most popular politician, still won handily.

Turnout across the Northshire hovered at or above the statewide turnout of 56.7 percent, led by Sandgate, where 66 percent, or 194 of the town's 295 registered voters, voted on Election Day or by absentee ballot.

ITVFest: Productions come, festival goes

The International Television Festival continued to grow in its second year in Manchester — and by the end of the year, it had grown its way out of town, to Duluth, Minn.

ITVFest, thanks in part to its new affiliation with the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, brokered more than 600 meetings between content creators and providers during its five-day run in October. That growth convinced the festival that it needed to grow, and that meant funding so it could hire full-time staff.

It put out a request for bids seeking a five-year, $1.45 million commitment and Duluth, a city of 86,000, cobbled together state and private funding. Executive director Philip Gilpin Jr. called it an "expansion" rather than a full-fledged move, and pledged the organization would remain a presence in Manchester and hold smaller seminar events here.

ITVFest, the only festival in the country dedicated to independently produced episodic drama, moved to Manchester from Dover in 2017, and brought more than 1,000 attendees to town in 2017 and 2018 for its annual conference and juried awards.

Manchester passes zoning overhaul

Three solid years of work came to fruition in May, when the Manchester Select Board approved a thorough overhaul of the town's zoning ordinance, with the goal of simplifying the map and the rules, promoting mixed-use development downtown, and preserving agricultural uses and open spaces on the outskirts of town. The vote followed months of hearings held by the Planning Commission and the Select Board.

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The new rules were also intended to encourage mixed-use development near the downtown Manchester Center area, in order to address the lack of housing for younger professionals who earn too much to qualify for affordable housing but can't afford the average market-rate home. According to recent data, about 3,000 people who work in the Northshire live outside the area and commute here due to housing issues.

Following the passage of the zoning plan, the Select Board also adopted a rule change raising the threshold for Act 250 purview of land use proposals from 1 acre to 10 acres. Under state law, towns with zoning and housing subdivision plans are set at 10 acres for Act 250 purposes, but Manchester, with its long history of downtown commercial development, had for years retained the 1-acre designation.

In the meantime, the Planning Commission has regularly sought updates from town planning and zoning director Janet Hurley on how the new rules are being applied, and whether changes need to be made to tweak the new rules going forward.

Winhall gets one-year reprieve on sending town agreement

An unexpected spike in Winhall's school enrollment last year put the town's school board in a pickle: Pass a budget with a steep property tax increase, or take a lesser tax increase — and the possibility that its long relationship with Burr and Burton Academy might be affected in the process.

The sudden enrollment increase, along with a deficit from the previous year, produced a budget proposal that would raise the town's school property tax by 50 cents per $100 in valuation if it budgeted using the status quo, or 27 cents per $100 if it paid the average tuition reimbursement rate to BBA, rather than the slightly higher sending town rate. (Families would cover the difference). But the latter plan would end the "sending agreement" between Winhall and BBA, which guarantees enrollment as long as the town pays the sending rate.

The resolution came in dramatic fashion at Winhall Town Meeting, when BBA Board of Trustees chairman Seth Bongartz, citing the long relationship between the town and the school, pledged that BBA would allow Winhall to pay the lower state average rate for one year —and one year only — giving it time to formulate a better solution. That accommodation cost the school more than $60,000 in tuition.

Burr and Burton Academy receives $20 million gift

In November, Burr and Burton Academy chose an alumnus, Kyle Murphy '07, and his firm KaTO Architects to lead the design of the $20 million Rowland Project created by local benefactor Wendy Rowland and her late husband, Barry. Murphy will be working with Washington, DC.-based ZGF Architects on the project.

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The Rowlands gave the $20 million gift — the largest ever to a Vermont secondary school — in March, with the intent of constructing a new 21st-century classroom building, a new courtyard and green space, a classroom facility at Hildene Meadows/Dene Farm, and other upgrades around the school's 29-acre campus.

Wendy Rowland said she was pleased with Murphy's selection. "I also like the idea of giving this opportunity to a young man at the beginning of his professional career, especially a BBA alumnus," she said.

Barry Rowland died on June 25, and was remembered at a memorial service in August before an overflow crowd at First Congregational Church in Manchester.

"Barry and Wendy Rowland are the most generous benefactors in the history of this school, and their impact is breathtaking," headmaster Mark Tashjian said during the service. "Barry will be missed — his spirit, opinions, wisdom, warmth, pride in others, friendship, his love for his family and his commitment to his community. But his legacy and his impact will live on forever."

School governance: mergers and changes

When school buses fanned out across the Northshire in late August to bring students back to school, they did so under the direction of two new school districts formed under Act 46, the state law encouraging school district consolidation.

The Taconic & Green Regional School District, formed by a vote of its nine member towns in 2017, went through its budget process as a new entity for the first time, presented its first budget in February, and easily won passage from Town Meeting voters in all nine of its communities. While it was business as usual for the T&G's five schools, there were some changes. Its governing entity, the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, hired a new food service director in Kelly Foster and a new operations director in Greg Harrington, responsible for the upkeep of the district's five buildings and transportation fleet. Both were hired with the hope of centralizing administrative tasks at the building level and improving service.

The Mettawee School District had a longer road. The on-again, off-again merger uniting the Pawlet and Rupert school districts and Mettawee Community School initially passed in both towns in November 2017, and then survived a reconsideration vote in Rupert in February to move forward. The proposal had been closely debated, with much of the focus on where its high school students would study, and how that would affect taxpayers. Both towns have long-standing arrangements with high schools in Salem and Granville, N.Y.; the new arrangement allows for larger tuition payments for families choosing Vermont schools.

While the Arlington and Sandgate districts were not recommended for Act 46 mergers by the state Agency of Education, the Board of Education in November voted to reallocate the two districts to the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, which governs schools in and around Bennington, in 2021.

The news came as a surprise in Arlington and Sandgate, which had expected to eventually join the BRSU, and in the SVSU, which had not been expecting to take on new towns as it readies for the merger of its elementary school districts under Act 46. The change was not expected to affect operations in Arlington, the region's only K-12 public school district, or Sandgate, a non-operating district.

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Skatepark close to becoming reality

At a Manchester Select Board meeting in February, when the deteriorating condition of the wooden skate ramps at Dana L. Thompson Memorial Park was discussed, resident Sylvia Jolivette reminded the board that the town had committed to a permanent skatepark years ago with a $50,000 appropriation from Town Meeting. "We dropped the ball. These kids have been waiting," she said.

At that same meeting, a core of area residents agreed to take on appointments as the town's revived Skatepark Committee and got to work.

Did they ever. Within several months, more than $250,000 was raised, much of it locally, and a design-build contractor, Grindline Skateparks of Seattle, has been hired to envision and build a concrete skateboard park in the area where the basketball court currently resides. (New courts will be built in the former skatepark space.) Construction is set to begin in spring.

Activists, kids call for plastic bag ban

Manchester's Select Board decided against going it alone on banning single-use thin-film plastic bags when presented with a plan by local environmental activists, deciding instead to approve a resolution calling on the Legislature to enact a statewide ban.

That, however, didn't dissuade some young activists from Manchester Elementary Middle School, who want to see Manchester join Brattleboro and several Berkshire County, Mass. communities in banning the bags over environmental concerns.

A group of those students appeared before the Select Board in late September, asking the board to pass a ban rather than a resolution. The board, in choosing the resolution route, said that it did not want to act unilaterally, and voiced concerns over how the town would enforce such a rule.

Those students haven't given up and demonstrated in favor of a ban at the Roundabout the following weekend.

Manchester Business Association moves forward

The Manchester Business Association made progress in 2018, launching a paid membership campaign and reaching an agreement with the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce aimed at staffing the town's visitors center and solidifying its role as a marketing partner.

The agreement made the MBA and the chamber partners rather than competitors and allowed MBA members to enjoy dual membership in the Chamber.

The membership campaign rolled out provisions for members within Manchester's borders and outside the town line as well, with varying degrees of perks for dues-paying members depending upon their level of membership. It was hoped that the membership drive, and support from the Chamber, would help the MBA staff its visitors center and fund marketing in traditional and digital media channels.

In November, the MBA held its first annual meeting to choose a board of directors and consider bylaws. The group also received $50,000 from Manchester Town Meeting voters to help fund its activities and expects to do so again in 2019.

Banjos, mandolins and happy festival-goers

A violent thunderstorm delayed, but could not stop, the music at the Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Music Festival at Hunter Park in August.

The brand-new festival, led by Jill and John Turpin of Landgrove, had to send paying customers scurrying for cover when the thunder and lightning stormed over the Taconics and into Manchester on Friday night. But the rain failed to dampen enthusiasm at the festival, as local and national performing artists including Peter Rowan, Donna The Buffalo, Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle serenaded concert-goers with guitars, mandolins, banjos and close harmonies.

At about 7 a.m. on Saturday, "I was walking around the grounds, I was soaked to the bone, there was a river running through this field," Jill Turpin said. "I didn't know if we would be able to put music on the main stage."

Instead, "We were up and running by 11, because we have a killer staff and our production crew was amazing. Everyone rallied," Turpin said.

The festival honored Friday tickets on Saturday due to the storm, and some musicians, including Rowan, stuck around an extra day to help the festival stay on its feet.


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