Hammond seeks re-election to her three-year seat

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BELLOWS FALLS — Susan Hammond thinks about the "big picture," whether it is working with veterans who are victims of Agent Orange in Southeast Asia, or working on issues in her hometown of Rockingham.

Hammond, 55, who lives in the village of Lower Bartonsville, is running for re-election to her three-year seat on the Rockingham Select Board. She is being challenged for that seat by two fellow select board members — Stefan Golec and Ben Masure, who are doubling down on their elective chances and are also running for one-year seats.

Hammond is the executive director of the War Legacies Project, a non-profit organization she founded after working for a decade in Asia and New York City for a similar organization, the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, which also addressed the environmental and health after-effects of the Vietnam War and Agent Orange. Her father's experience in Vietnam —including his exposure to Agent Orange and his resulting Parkinson's Disease — also inspired her interest in the region.

Her War Legacies Project work in Laos and Vietnam will be included in an upcoming New York Times Magazine story marking the 45th anniversary of the end of the war, she said.

Hammond got interested in serving on the select board after Tropical Storm Irene devastated many areas of town — including destroying the historic Bartonsville Covered Bridge — which she caught on video in 2011.

Hammond works with people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, as well as U.S. veterans and their families on the issues of Agent Orange and its after effects or legacy. She works out of her home in Bartonsville most of the time, but also travels to Southeast Asia three times a year for her job.

Hammond is a familiar voice on the speaker phone, as she calls in to Rockingham Select Board meetings from her hotel room in Cambodia or Vietnam, via the internet, to keep up with the issues in Rockingham.

"Most of the time it works just fine," she said, although she is dependent on a good internet connection during those meetings.

Hammond, who graduated from Bellows Falls Union High School in 1983, said she was re-energized by the enthusiasm and mix of long-time and new Rockingham residents at the recent meetings sponsored by the Vermont Center for Rural Studies.The Montpelier-based organization conducts visits with a few Vermont communities every year, acting often as a catalyst for local projects and community-based change.

The Rockingham effort was dubbed "Let's Take Action," and in in the process of three meetings drew its focus to three areas: reusing old buildings in Bellows Falls, creating a youth-run youth center, and getting the town into renewable energy, including energy conservation.

Hammond joined the old buildings task force. She thinks the town's future economic growth is tied to reuse of often-dilapidated buildings, whether it is the old Chemco building (dubbed Liberty Mill by former Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark), the town-owned TLR mill buildings, the old Hetty Green Motel, and the Bellows Falls Garage building.

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"I found it really, really energizing and it was not all 'gloom and doom,'" she said. "I'm really looking forward to the work of the three task forces and I want to help as much as possible."

She said the Windham-Windsor Housing Trust's plan to convert the old Bellows Falls Garage building into apartments is a wonderful project, and believes the town and community need to work together to address those buildings and the deeper issues they represent.

Hammond said her work on the Rockingham board sometimes leads to frustration, because she said several board members view the town's future in a way which she maintains is self-defeating and counter-productive. Too often, she said, people say "'nothing is happening here,'" when she feels Rockingham and its employees are working hard.

"People are engaged and have a lot of good ideas," she said. "I feel some momentum in the community."

The most controversial items during the recent budget process included whether to increase the development director's job to a full-time position, and whether to continue to employ a full-time public works director. She was in favor of both, while the majority of the board were opposed, saying they were either not needed or too expensive. She and Peter Golec, chairman of the Select Board, were on the losing end of those arguments.

Hammond's brother Everett Hammond returned in 2018 to his previous job as public works director, and Susan Hammond said the job is needed to keep the town's infrastructure repaired, avoiding costly fixes down the road, a financial hole that has plagued the town recently. "Roads deteriorate quickly," she said.

She said it is short-sighted for the town not to have a full-time economic development director, given all the economic challenges the town is facing.

The town tax rate, which will in all likelihood be level funded for the coming year, includes a significant portion paying off debt — bonds for large projects townspeople approved several years ago.

The town is still paying off bonds approved for the restoration of the Bellows Falls Opera House, she said, and the renovations to the Rockingham Free Public Library.

"These were decisions made 10 years ago," she said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.


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