BENNINGTON — The Bennington County Regional Commission held its monthly meeting at the Brown Cow Cafe on Thursday, and heard presentations from Kiah Morris and Mark Anders.
Morris, state representative from Bennington and director of the Alliance for Community Transformations, updated the work her organization has done since receiving the federal Drug Free Communities Grant in September. The organization is focused on three goals, she said: youth empowerment and engagement, substance abuse prevention, and promoting healthy and active living. The group is working towards these goals by working with several other organizations in the community, including "youth ambassadors" from Mount Anthony Union High School, the Grace Christian School, and Sunrise.
"It's not about just making another drug education program," she said, "It's about looking at the whole community, the whole environment, to help kids stay resilient in avoiding drug use."
As an example, she asked the audience how many of them knew people who thought it was OK for high schoolers to use heroin. When no one raised their hands, she asked how many knew people who thought it was okay for high schoolers to use alcohol or marijuana. "There's a high level of acceptance from many in the community," she said of those two drugs, "and a low sense of risk from the youth themselves." That, she said, needs to change.
When asked by an audience member what message legalizing marijuana would send to young people, Morris responded, "I think it's a really complex message, similar to what we see with alcohol — that it's safe."
Morris said ACT is planning on holding a press conference and a community forum in December to discuss ways to utilize the grant funding of $125,000 a year for up to five years, which can then be renewed for another five years.
"You cannot address the factors that lead to substance abuse without looking at the physical environment that it is taking place in," she said.
Anders, regional planner and transportation program manager at the BCRC, updated the group on the latest happenings with the Ninja Path, which will provide bicycle and pedestrian access between Bennington College and Benmont Avenue. The town received a $1.1 million grant to complete the project, which will run from Hicks Avenue, near the Benmont bridge, along the Walloomsac behind Walmart, the Morse industrial area, and Hannaford, and will end at the Silk Road intersection near the college.
As to why the project was necessary, Anders was blunt: "As far as being a pedestrian or cyclist, this part of town really sucks."
He noted that, because of piecemeal or non-existent sidewalks on Northside Drive, walking there can be dangerous. Once completed, however, the Ninja Path will bypass that whole area. His slideshow took the audience step by step down the planned length of the trail, as he pointed out planned connectors to the Price Chopper plaza parking lot, Morse Road, and the Hannaford plaza lot.
"There is an existing bridge," joked Anders, showing a picture of a downed tree lying across Furnace Brook, "but we have money for an improved bridge."
He said the BCRC is working through a lot of the bureaucratic hurdles, and that final construction on the path is years off. However, he said, the town is interested in constructing a dirt path first, which he was hopeful would begin soon. One of the biggest challenges has been redesigning the Silk Road intersection, which has seen more than its share of accidents in recent years, to make it safe for bicyclists and pedestrians.
The project, he said, even with the grant, is still a few hundred thousands dollars short of its goal of $1.5 million. Bennington Planning Director Dan Monks, who Anders gave credit for doing much of the work on the project, said when the grant was announced, "We feel this will be a major boost to our trail network in town, and will undoubtedly have a positive impact on pedestrian access and recreational opportunities for people with many interests."