Commentary: Chester is emerging with new energy

By Cynthia Prairie
©2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Several years ago, at a Chester Town Meeting, a resident told those gathered that she believed that the town was stagnating. Then, others noted there were empty shops on the Green, houses were not selling and those that did sell were getting prices far lower than their assessed value.

For many years, Chester remained in that slump, which was felt not only by many of its residents, but by those outside of Chester as well — from government officials to visitors. The refrain was the same: “What is wrong with Chester?”

Was it just the slump in the economy that was suppressing the mood of the citizenry? Was it the fact that Chester no longer had its own Chester-centric Chamber of Commerce? Maybe, but whatever the cause, the malaise was there and the town of Chester’s reputation among state and regional officials and neighboring towns was suffering.

The near-loss of the historic Yosemite Firehouse from 2014 to 2016 seems to be the nadir for the town. The Chester Historical Society said it couldn’t afford to keep the building, pondered selling it, then offered to turn it over to the town. Select Board members wavered, balking at owning a building that would need work. What would they do with it? Did it matter that it is one of the most historic buildings in the town as well as the state?

For those who cherish historic buildings, it was a difficult time. And it left many wondering just what was the vision of the town — and town government. Was town government going to hinder or help all the talented people in Chester who had great ideas for improving the quality of life for its residents?

For a time, it was a hindrance, as in 2013 when the Select Board rejected an offer from the Southern Vermont Astronomy Group to donate to the town an observatory it had been given. The group wanted to set it up at the Pinnacle for public – and school – use. The cost to the town would have been $7,000.

Soon after, the Chester Beautification Committee came on the scene, planting daffodil bulbs, filling large planters with beautiful spring and summer flowering plants throughout the town and helping to clean up the unsightly trees on the Green.

For years, other organizations  — mostly small with a handful of people leading the charge — had been carrying out their individual missions with hardly any notice until their events took place or someone used a trail they had created and maintained. The Labor Day weekend fireworks; Overture to Christmas; the Winter Carnival; hiking and snowmobile trails.

With fewer than 20 members, the Chester Rotary Club works all year to stage the two-day Fall Festival which has been recognized as one of Vermont’s premier autumn events, but has had to come to the Select Board each year to explain what they do and ask for approval.

But in the last year or two, the mood has begun to change, and its most visible manifestation was this weekend with the opening of the Hearse House Museum, which not only saves one of several unique buildings in Chester but offers the wider public a view into a time that really isn’t offered anywhere else. In just two years, the members of the Beautification Committee — now known as Chester Townscape — accomplished a task that some thought impossible or not worthwhile. But they have created a gem of a small museum. And what of other changes? Overall, there is a stronger sense on the Chester Select Board that they can work with and help these organizations. The town even established a Committee of Committees, where once a month, representatives from the various organizations get together to report to one another on what they are doing. It’s a chance to look for cooperation and collaboration among all the groups.

And, thanks to Town Manager David Pisha and Executive Assistant Julie Hance who shepherded the task, the Village Center has been undergoing a Master Planning process. But that isn’t the only thing. Town government has also:

  • Secured a sidewalk grant to make the town more walkable.
  • OK’d a feasibility study for a new buildings to house our emergency services and public works agencies.
  • Approved an audit of the town’s zoning.
  • Secured a grant for nine more holes at the Disc Golf Course at the Pinnacle.
  • And built the new water tank and transmission lines.

All are much needed to secure the future of the town as an attractive, reasonable and functioning place to live.

Other things have begun to change as well. Houses are finally selling; and Chester-Andover Elementary has the biggest class of kindergartners it has had in a long while. The student count at the high school is up too. Access to the Rainbow Rock swimming hole from Green Mountain Turnpike has been improved and made permanent thanks to the Vermont River Conservancy, and there is a possibility that 1,800 acres off Lovers Lane will be conserved by the New England Forestry Foundation with possible uses by many outdoor organizations in town.

Meanwhile, Chester also has a new hiking trail — the Butternut Trail — thanks to the Chester Conservation Committee and a disc golf course thanks to volunteers. The Chester Economic Development Committee creates an annual brochure highlighting the great businesses and events in Chester. Pennies for the Playground is working toward raising funds for a new playground at the elementary school. And volunteers professionally refurbished the town-owned American LaFrance fire truck that may someday be on display at the Yosemite Firehouse, the ownership of which town government is embracing and working to gain.

New people are moving here from other Vermont towns and from out of state, and one family we spoke with decided to take their home off the market and stay in Chester because they sensed the change. Businesses are staying, growing and moving in. And there is a new openness to ideas that is luring people, who at one time felt stymied and unappreciated, to volunteer once again.

There will always be people who will criticize these efforts and demand that Chester not change. But change will happen, and the only thing that we can do about it is to make sure it is positive change and not deterioration.

We should celebrate the people who work to make change a public good. Their work hasn’t gone unnoticed and it shouldn’t go unheralded. Let’s keep the momentum going.



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Filed Under: CommentaryOp-ed

About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia 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, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Phil Atwood says:

    Hi Cynthia,
    Well done!

  2. John Grady says:

    It looks like all the Fear Mongering over the Dollar General was irrational hysteria. The two upgraded gas stations are an added bonus so moving Jiffy Mart didn’t matter or did tearing down the old worn out house.

    The repairs to Grafton Road RT 35, Popple Dungeon Road and new side walks also send a signal to people the town isn’t going down the drain.

    Now if the excessive and wasteful school spending could be corrected Southern Vermont will have a better future. Excessive taxes have given Vermont a bad reputation.

    The Green Acres crowd clinging to the past isn’t building a future, it’s blocking progress here in the 21st Century. Cell Phone service all over town would be a good idea now that people are addicted to their Smart Phones, they sure aren’t going to want to be cut off from the world living in the back woods.

  3. Cynthia Prairie says:

    As our stories and the editorial pointed out, the Beautification Committee, which does the beautiful plantings around town, changed its overall name to Chester Townscape, which undertook the Hearse House project. So, yes, indeed, the people are one and the same.

  4. Barre Pinske says:

    Our most successful group in town consists of women who all are probably over 65 years young. My hat goes off to them. Thank you for your efforts. The flowers were beautiful this year. The Hearse House is a huge success. I believe many of the same people were behind that too.

    It’s nice to see some positive press about our town also. I have been saying for years we need to work, plan and invest in our future. Cities and towns are competing for business and residents. We have much to offer here especially to crafters looking for a live-work-sell model. Much is still for sale.

    I’d like to see us reach out more to let people in the arts and crafts business know what we have to offer. Rte. 103 is a gold mine I believe we are not taking full advantage of it.

    Getting more shops will get more folks to stop and keep people here longer, moving us to more of a destination than a pass through town. I hope next year I can make some improvements to my building and property to reflect better on our town.

  5. Tim Roper says:

    Thank you for recognizing the steps being taken to perpetuate the wonderful community feel and aesthetic that attracted us to Chester 30 years ago. There’s groundswell movement of business owners and volunteers who are committed to improving and maintaining the positive and beautiful aspects of our town, which create that feeling. With the support of our volunteer town government and committed town employees, it’s clear that Chester is on a positive track.

    Looking ahead, let’s be sure that we work to include everyone in the ongoing planning and develop a self-sustaining future of which we can be proud. That future is only possible when there are opportunities for all of our citizens to to enjoy good quality of life through economic sustainability.

    Let’s do this, Chester!

  6. Lyza Gardner says:

    This is thoughtful, well-composed and—for someone who has lived here a mere 18 months—insightful and educational. You can chalk me (and my partner) up as folks who were attracted by the energy of Chester and have loved every minute of living here.

  7. Ken Slater says:

    Not to mention an upstart web-paper that makes news of such fine efforts more available to all helps advance these efforts!