As Grafton begins to look at updating Town Plan, its citizens brainstorm

By Cynthia Prairie
© 2014 – Telegraph Publishing LLC

Almost 50 Grafton residents turned out at the elementary school Monday night to offer up their views of and hopes for the town that they call home. The input will be gelled into a more concise form and will likely become part of a new Grafton Town Plan.

Grafton Town Offices. Chester Telegraph photo

Grafton Town Offices. Chester Telegraph photo

Grafton has kept its 2008 Town Plan, but its seven-member Planning Commission is beginning to rewrite it as the town experiences problems similar to other towns in Vermont: a struggling economy, loss of jobs and higher taxes are just a few. Monday’s session was part of that re-write.

Planning Commission member Liisa Kissel said she sought out the Windham Regional Commission to facilitate Monday’s meeting after learning of a similar brainstorming session held by the WRC for Saxtons River.

Susan McMah0n, associate director of the WRC, lead the discussion. She was later joined by Laura Sibilia of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., which is a private, nonprofit that seeks to help businesses flourish.

Kissel introduced the goal of the night’s SWOT discussion: As revising the Town Plan in considered, the night was “focused on economic development and sustainability,” keeping Chapter 3 (The Economy) of the Town Plan at the forefront. Here is a link to the Town Plan.

McMahon used the SWOT method for the evening. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats and is a common format for town planners to use in gathering public opinion and insight.

STRENGTHS: Among the 30+ strengths that the group listed were Grafton’s recreational facilities and areas and its abundant natural resources. Also mentioned were the town’s beauty, walkability and well-kept appearance, which included the fact that the power lines are buried, making it quite attractive to photographers. Some mentioned its connection to the arts, such as the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, which visits for July 4th festivities, the Cornet Band, as well as the Grafton Inn, a destination hotel for many travelers. Town services and community outreach were also highly praised, as were the school, the library and Grafton’s international reputation and strong brand.

WEAKNESSES: Job opportunities and a need for more shops topped the list of 20+ weaknesses that attendees enumerated. They saw a lack of tradesmen such as plumbers and electricians  as well as a big gap in professionals such as doctors, lawyers and accountants. Even so, some said Grafton doesn’t have “much of a middle class” and remains an expensive place to live. While some praised its small size — population 640 — others said that small size meant it doesn’t attract services. The audience also considers Grafton “remote” with no public transportation and cell coverage and with health care “far away.”

OPPORTUNITIES: The audience said that Grafton businesses needed to take better advantage of the tourists brought in by the Windham Foundation, Grafton Ponds, fishing, hunting and snowmobiling as well as the trails and links with other communities. Kissel also suggested that an information kiosk would be extremely helpful in guiding tourists around town.  Some saw great potential in helping small home-based, non-industrial businesses to thrive in this Internet age. Others suggested a business incubator setup, business-to-business mentoring and utilizing the new and talented people who move to town. Besides home-based businesses, a number in attendance suggested there needed to be more shops: where at one time there were five or six, there are now none. And while home-based businesses were a focus, others suggested targeting the underutilized industrial property in Cambridgeport as well as the need for sawmills. “This part of Vermont has the best hardwoods and we’re trying to figure out how to utilize them,” WRC’s Susan McMahon told the crowd.

THREATS: Perceived threats were fewer than opportunities, strengths or weaknesses, and at times settled on the lack of young people moving in, the lack of good-paying non-seasonal jobs and the expensive housing stock. Still there were concerns about a proposed wind energy project that will straddle Windham and Grafton, the questions of who exactly controls the brand that is Grafton, the flooding that has devastated so many areas including Grafton, as well as taxes.

The Windham Foundation, which employs a number of people at its foundation as well as the Grafton Cheese Co., the Grafton Inn, and also owns a number of homes and buildings in the area, came up a number of times. Like other items considered, the subject of the foundation ranged across a number of  the topics. It was not only considered a strength because of what it has done for the town, it was also considered a weakness because of the town’s dependence upon it and an opportunity since it brings in tourists that local business can capitalize on.

At the end of the two hour meeting, McMahon acknowledged the impressive turnout, and Kissel said, “We do have a good town, we all want a good future. Looking at the strengths, opportunities and challenges helps the Planning Commission do our work.”

In an interview on Tuesday, Kissel called Monday’s comments, “thoughtful and respectful. … this will certainly give input into the Economy chapter as well as other applicable parts” of the Town Plan.  She added that the Planning Commission will now “distill what we learned … it’ a very good start for the town and our future. We’re struggling like all small towns.”

Grant and Village Center designation

She added that Grafton is undertaking two related projects: a grant for small business and Village Center designation. Village Center designation, which comes from the state, offers tax breaks to some businesses within a specific area and can help the town obtain certain grants.

As for the small business grant, Kissel said that Planning Commission member Rex James took the lead in applying for the Vermont Yankee grant for $48,000 to hire two economic development interns who would help market and support some of Grafton’s home-based businesses. The commission is hoping that if they are awarded the grant, it will also help in connecting and facilitating collaboration among the businesses to promote their work.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 30 years. She has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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