Youth Center emerges as top priority

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BELLOWS FALLS — Rockingham community members have set their priorities: they want to build a youth center, establish a climate and energy task force, and redevelop Bellows Falls buildings.

At a well-attended public meeting Wednesday evening, the second in the "Let's Take Action" community planning effort, residents voted in favor of the three topics out of an earlier set of eight priorities. Those priorities had included improving public transportation, improving housing and creating educational, skill training and career development, as well as helping existing small business and attracting new business.

The meeting, held at the Bellows Falls Opera House, drew a large crowd of more than 150, including about two dozen young people who ended up swaying the vote and convincing others that a youth center should be the town's top priority. The youth center came out as the most important thing on people's list of priorities.

The Vermont Center for Rural Development started work on a "community visit" last fall with a steering committee after an invitation by town officials. The first meeting of the planning process was Dec. 4, where about 200 people got together to brainstorm about Rockingham, Bellows Falls and Saxtons River, and what were the most important issues facing the town.

Building a youth center rose to the top after several students, and officials who work with them, said a youth center would help on many of the other priorities - including keeping young people in the town.

The proposed youth center would "offer a safe and fun location to get together and an opportunity to empower youth to lead, create and hang out," according to a list of priorities the VCRD culled from the December discussions.

"The center can be designed as a welcoming environment for youth, but also a way to connect to the broader community through recreational activities," the list of "ideas and opportunities" stated.

In addition to the youth center idea, the issue of climate change, energy efficiency and "resiliency" was also on a lot of people's minds.

The other third priority was redeveloping and reusing many abandoned and/or underused Bellows Falls buildings. "A task force could form to plan, fund and implement projects to leverage public and private investment and engage community input to preserve, revitalize or repurpose vacant or underutilized buildings," the priorities list stated. Some of the potential buildings include the former ChemCo building, the former YMCA building, the TLR mill building, as well as the Moore and Thompson Lower Mill, the Bellows Falls train station and the Hotel Windham.

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Virtually all of those buildings have been the focus of town or Bellows Falls village attention this year - and not always in a positive way. Village officials have been trying to get the owners of the ChemCo building and the former YMCA building to repair those structures for more than a year.

Many downtown business owners made a plea that Let's Take Action make supporting and fostering small businesses as a priority.

It is businesses that make the downtown area vibrant, create jobs, and provide opportunities for residents - including youth, the business owners said.

Teresa Janiszyn, the local chairwoman of "Let's Take Action," said the next step would be establishing task forces on each topic, with the third and final meeting scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 13.

Janiszyn said the three topics selected by the participants are doable.

"These are actionable. We can make these happen," she said, urging people to sign up for the different task forces and "lend an area of expertise" to the planning process.

"The work really starts now," said Jenna Koloski of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, who said her organization will bring in consultants and people who have experience in Vermont on those three different topics to discuss the next steps.

After the session, Peter Golec, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, said he was surprised that a youth center was the town's priority. He said he thought supporting small businesses and creating more economic development would be the top issue.

"Money's an issue," he said. "It always is."

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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