Friday January 25, 2013

BELLOWS FALLS -- About 40 Rockingham residents showed up at the Rockingham Town Hall Lower Theatre on Thursday to volunteer their input on plans to revitalize the section of the village known as The Island.

John Mullin of Mullin Associates, the consulting firm hired for the job, directed a hands-on planning and design exercise where planners, property and business owners worked together to discuss issues and potential solutions for the development. Known as a charrette, the meeting consisted of concerned citizens breaking into six groups to brainstorm about the island’s growth and rehabilitation plan.

Rockingham Planning-Zoning Administrator Ellen Howard started the event by saying The Island -- part of the village’s designated downtown -- has seen many changes over the years and more is set to come. Howard said what some used to call the paper-producing capital of the United States now has a more commercial and light industrial use.

Mullin, being assisted by Zenia Kotval and Carlos Nieto-Mattei on the project, being then took the floor and said the price of the cookies and soda in the front of the room was to keep an open mind and think about what they would like to see happen over the next five years. He said he has so far been asked to determine appropriate land uses, design guidelines for new and historic buildings, determine potential methods and options to improve pedestrian accessibility and safety (including lighting) and recommending options for improvements.

Kotval is Mullin’s business partner and Nieto-Mattei, is a landscape architect with The Berkshire Design Group Inc. (Northampton, Mass.), who is working with them on this project.

Mullin said the railroad property, hydroelectric facilities and substations, and Bellows Falls Waypoint Center will stay put and the Vilas Bridge will remain closed.

He told audience members to break off into six groups to determine what they felt the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats are to the plan to reinvigorate The Island. After 45 minutes, the groups selected a member to highlight the top few answers in front of the crowd. Several groups said the local architecture and the history of the Bellows Falls Canal serve as huge strengths while the closure of the Vilas Bridge and inaccessibility of water are weaknesses. Enterprise and an increase in jobs were identified as opportunities but many cited the Vilas Bridge and nearby brownfields as potential threats to the project.

Earlier in the meeting, Mullin said he has so far gotten an updated list of businesses in the area and updated property value information and examined historic attributes. At a public meeting in November, Mullin said the area cannot afford to ignore its fascinating history, specifically citing the petroglyphs (images etched on rock surfaces by Native Americans).

Rockingham Development Director Francis "Dutch" Walsh said maps have been sent to the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation two weeks ago to see where long-lost American Indian burial grounds could be located.

Mullin told the audience reparcilization -- when the lands are cleared for residential, industrial or commercial use -- is necessary but he is not yet sure to what degree. He also said parking requirements may need to be revised and fiber-optic capability is essential for The Island.

"A phrase we use in our business all the time is ‘Be wired or be done,’" he told the crowd.

Mullin was quick to stress that everything up to this point is a draft and the final plan will be unveiled in February.

"I hope I’ve said ‘draft’ enough tonight," he said to a laugh.

Mullin used his skills as a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to keep everyone engaged and organized and he made sure to weave some humor into the points he was making.

Once everybody left their group and resumed to their usual seats, Mullin took some final comments. Members of the public emphasized a desire to take advantage of the area’s history and many hoped the Robertson Paper Company building, which has a sentimental significance to many in town, will be spared from demolition.

Ray Massucco said he was surprised and impressed by how many people want to save the building from being torn down.

A couple of people in the audience said there were happy to see so many residents -- especially younger individuals -- at the charrette.

"Once again the citizens did what I hoped they would," resident Cathy Bergmann said from her chair. "They have the same dreams, the same hopes and they came through."

The Green Island Project is one of several for the Sustainable Valley Group, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to generating financially and environmentally sustainable economies. The project aims to beautify and improve The Island by revitalizing its old buildings and attempting to bring in businesses to create jobs. According to SVG, the project is about training and jobs in the sustainable sectors of an evolving economy -- energy conservation, efficiency and curtailment, renewable energy and local food systems and permaculture.

Rockingham Planning Commission Chairman Alan Lacombe previously said Mullin Associates was one of the respondents to a municipal planning grant written by the commission.

To conclude the meeting, Walsh said this is the beginning of a very long process.

"Nothing is going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen next year," he told the audience. "As John and Zenia said when they first came in here, this is a five-year process at the very least."

Mullin has three options that consist of minimum, moderate and maximum changes to the designs shown in November.

Fox said he was happy to see how enthusiastic the community is about this project. He said it made him to proud that so many people came to have their voices and concerns heard.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311. You can follow him @dpoli_reformer.