Sparse but enthusiastic group turns out for Chester planning forum

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing, LLC

If Harry Truman was right and “decisions are made by those who show up,” then on Saturday, around 50 people began charting the course for Chester’s downtown for years to come.


Mark Kane of SE Group identifying the boundaries of the village center area.  Photos by Shawn Cunningham.

Despite efforts by town government to bring people out to express their opinions on issues facing Chester, participation was thin for the all-day kickoff of the town’s Village Center Master Plan workshop. A tally compiled by The Telegraph showed while some residents were on hand all day, fewer than 2 percent of the town’s 3,000 residents showed up for any of the four, two-hour focus group sessions.

Nevertheless, SE Group’s Mark Kane, director of community planning and design, facilitated the groups saying that he was surprised and pleased with the turnout of 26 people for the Arts Culture and History session that began at 8 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 22.

There were about the same number for the following session looking at Retail and Local Business and a few less for the Food and Lodging discussion at 1 p.m. With 29 participants, the Recreation and Agriculture session was the best attended, especially by younger residents with children.

Each focus group revolved around a set of questions meant to quantify opinions, but the questions also served as a jumping off point for subsequent questions and further discussion.


One of the key pad polling devices used by attendees to answer focus group questions

Participants were given a small “keypad polling” device to vote on the questions, which began with demographics (e.g., how long have you lived in Chester and do you live in the Village Center)  then moved on to questions of how important various things are to Chester and how well those things are handled in Chester.

Nearly everyone in all four groups was a resident. But while a majority of all four groups has lived in Chester for more than 10 years, the Art, History and Culture group and the Agriculture and Recreation group shaded somewhat newer to town.

If you were unable to attend Saturday’s meeting and still want to participate, you can take the town visitor survey by clicking here.

Among the other questions asked and answered were:

How Important is Arts/Culture to Chester’s identity?

Very Important 70%    Important 22%    Not sure 9%    Not important 0%

How important are historical resources to the identity of Chester?

Very important 84%    Important 12%    Not sure 4%    Not important 0%

Does the Town take good care of its historic resources?

Yes  7%    No  81%    Not sure  11%

Does the Town adequately market its historic resources to tourists?

Very often 4%    Often 4%    Occasionally 19%    Not sure 11%    Not often 41%    Never  22%

How important is shopping and retail business to the identity of Chester?

Very important  56%    Important 44%    Not sure  0%     Not important 0%

Do the retail businesses meet local needs?

Yes 32%    No  56%    Not sure 12%

How important is the support of local businesses to you?

Very important  96%    Important 4%    Not sure 0%    Not important  0%

How effectively does the Town support or promote local businesses?

Very effectively 5%    Somewhat effectively 40%    Not sure 25%    Not effectively 30%

How important is Food and Lodging to the identity of Chester?

Very important  69%    Important  25%    Not sure  6%     Not important 0%

Is there a good selection of local dining?

Yes 12%    Yes but limited  59%    Not really 29%    No  0%

Do you have a local restaurant that you recommend?

Yes  87%    No  13%

Are the local restaurants too focused on tourists?

Yes 7%    No 80%    Not sure 13%

How important is recreation to Chester’s identity?

Very important 70%    Somewhat important 23%    Not sure 0%    Not important 7%

Do you feel the Town adequately meets the recreational needs for its residents?

Yes  36%    No 36%    Not sure 29%

How important is agriculture and farming to the identity of Chester?

Very important 24%    Somewhat important  63%    Not sure 3%    Not important 3%

Does the Town adequately support local agricultural businesses?

Yes  10%    No  38%    Not sure  52%


Chester artist Barre Pinske talks about the role of art in the community

How visible are local agricultural products and services within the community?

Very visible  7%    Somewhat visible 63%    Not visible 22%    Not sure 7%

A once active arts scene

Ironically given the sparse attendance, during the Art, Culture and History focus group, several participants remembered the active arts scene that included the Chester Art Guild and Chester Players, both of which ceased operation in the last decade as well as programming by the Green Mountain Festival Series.

The festival series also was once quite active, but dwindled down to an arts education program. Many agreed that the people who volunteered to make these things happen were not replaced by younger residents and that some of the vibrancy of the community was lost.


Residents examine the village district map

Questions on recreation yielded calls for more recreation opportunities above the sixth grade, less emphasis on competitive team sports, better shoulders on roads to accommodate cyclists, a dog park and maps for hiking trails and walking routes.

Participants were generally happy with the food and lodging choices offered in town although many expressed a desire for a greater diversity of ethnic foods.

While it has implications for the town as a whole, the planning exercise, looks specifically state designated Village Center, which runs along Main Street from Church to Maple and then along Depot Street to Town Hall.

Community Visioning session coming up

Soft participation was not limited to rank and file residents with only two members of the Planning Commission (Tom Bock and Claudio Veliz) and the same number of Development Review Board members (Carla Westine and Phil Perlah) on hand for any sessions.


Consultant James Stevens, left, discusses the focus group with steering committee members Rick Paterno, center, and Barre Pinske

Select Board members Arne Jonynas, Heather Chase and Dan Cote each sat in on several sessions while board chair John DeBenedetti was briefly at the first session. Ben Whalen, the remaining Select Board member, was leading an extrication class for the EMT training being held in Chester and could not attend.

A “community visioning” session is scheduled for the evening of Tuesday Nov. 15 although an exact time has not been set. Members of the project steering committee will hold their first meeting before then – tentatively on Wednesday, Nov. 9. Both meetings will be held on the second floor of Town Hall and are open to the public.


One of four boards created with assumptions for the sessions. Participants were urged to mark up and cover the boards with notes including corrections. This board ended up with a lively handwritten disagreement on whether there actually is an ‘Okemo Valley.’

The master planning process has been funded by a $70,000 Strong Communities, Better Connections grant through Vermont’s Agency of Transportation and Agency of Commerce and Community Development. SE Group is the lead consultant in a team that was selected a competitive process that attracted nine bids.

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  1. Laura Thomas says:

    I would have loved to have been there for the Chester Master planning meeting. I was planning on it, but I just couldn’t get away. A very hard time of year and day (Saturday) to leave the business for those of us in the hospitality/retail businesses. I know other business owners in town who couldn’t make it because of the timing. 1 or 2 weekends later would have been better, after foliage tourists have left.
    Thanks Cynthia and Shawn for keeping us up to date!