BRATTLEBORO — While Vermont is known for the skiing in its green mountains, there’s a natural resource many people don’t even think about — the Connecticut River.
Shannon Rogers, an associate extension professor at the University of New Hampshire, focuses on nature-based economic development.
“We are fortunate in New England to have so many rivers that go through downtowns,” she said, during a recent online forum hosted by the Connecticut River Joint Commissions. “That makes sense because many of our communities were former mill towns.”
But in mill town days, said Rogers, the communities were built “with their backs to the rivers,” which were sources of energy and a place to dump waste.
“Many communities are seeing an opportunity to embrace the river in a different way, by turning and facing the river,” she said.
New Hampshire’s Connecticut River Valley Resource Commission and Vermont’s Connecticut River Watershed Advisory Commission have met together as the Connecticut River Joint Commissions since 1989, advocating and ensuring public involvement in decisions which affect the 410-mile river and the communities along it.
The Nov. 8 forum focused on recreation’s impact on the communities that line the banks of the river.
Turning to face the river can be as simple as river walks, such as in Nashua, N.H., and Wilton, N.H., which has a mile-long riverwalk along the Stony Brook River.
“There are some [river walks] that are longer but [Wilton] wanted to embrace the river and give people maybe something to do at lunchtime ... go out and have a place to sit or do a stroll.”
Rogers said she has shared this information with the Hinsdale-Brattleboro Bridge Project Advisory Committee, an advisory committee established to look at opportunities for the soon-to-be-closed bridges connecting the two towns and the island between them.
River walks and services are part of a recreation economy that can be encouraged up and down the Connecticut River, said Alex Belensz, of SE Group, consultants to the mountain resort industry.
“If you’re in or along a river or stream, and you’re there intentionally with the purpose of being at that river for fun, or for spiritual renewal, or for hanging out with a close friend, I would consider that recreation,” said Belensz. “There’s a lot that could fall into that. It can be on a big motorized boat or just finding a little rock to sit on and hanging out for a bit skipping stones.”
Activities on and along a river contribute to the local economy, but only if services and supplies are there, the river is accessible, and a town has a bit of character a visitor might be looking for, said Belensz and Rogers.
“If your river is proximate to your downtown ... is there a way to have a boat launch or a place to put in your paddleboard, kayak or canoe?” asked Rogers.
And is it ADA compliant?
“We might not be realizing the full economic benefit of an activity because there are a lot of people who don’t feel comfortable or able to participate in it,” said Belensz.
He recommended folks take a look at Wealth Works, in New Hampshire’s north country, which brought together “value chain stakeholders” — outfitters, equipment rental and repair services, outdoor recreation guides, and hospitality businesses such as restaurants, lodging and breweries.
But even when you have that sort of collaboration, businesses still need people to cook, serve, work on bicycles and sell supplies.
“They have to live and work somewhere,” said Belensz, adding they have to have a job that pays them enough to take time off and spend a little money while doing it.
Josh Hanford, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, said you can’t have a thriving river economy without housing.
“We’re really living in a period where our housing that we have does not meet the current needs. Most of our communities have more jobs than homes,” he said.
And even though the state has had “very modest population growth,” it’s still growing and housing is not keeping up.
“In Vermont, we have 15 percent of all households that are severely cost-burdened, paying more than 50 percent of their household income on housing, and 19,000 housing units that were substandard or didn’t meet code.”
Hanford said a household shouldn’t be spending more than 30 percent of its income on housing.
One of the problems is Vermont has the largest lot size in the country, bigger than Alaska, he said.
“And it’s creating costs and allowing less people to be be invited into our communities.”
Vermont communities are being asked to change land use ordinances to allow for more density and to let homeowners build accessory dwelling units on their properties.
While the wealthy can take care of themselves, and affordable housing stock is increasing, Hanford said the state is worried about “the missing middle.”
“In the middle, you’re sort of pricing out your folks ... your middle income folks that should be homeowners and starting and raising a family in your community,” he said. “So we have this sort of robust economy, a lot of it built around recreation in our beautiful state, and people coming here, but there’s no place for the locals to live because there’s no affordable housing.”
Because of that, there’s a labor shortage in Vermont. People who might want to move here for a job can’t find an affordable place to live, so they’re turning down jobs in the Green Mountain State, said Hanford.
Vermont is hoping to capitalize on COVID-19 recovery funds and money from the infrastructure act to address its housing shortage, said Hanford.
“We’re trying to convince communities that they should be tackling their housing problems by supporting investments with those funds in lots of different ways,” he said.
One of the things communities are doing is using the money for water and wastewater projects, like in Grafton and Londonderry, which recently received $12 million in ARPA funds.
“We need to welcome more people,” said Hanford. “It doesn’t have to be at the expense of our environment and the natural resources that we value.”