First Climate Community initiative launched in Pownal

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POWNAL — The Vermont Council on Rural Development launched its first Climate Economy Model Communities initiative Tuesday in Pownal, with about 30 residents turning out to begin planning for a series of public forums.

Under the new program, residents will select specific goals and form task forces to work on projects with teams of officials and employees from the program's main partners, Green Mountain Power and Efficiency Vermont, and applicable state departments.

Based on the applications submitted, Pownal was chosen in early April as the initial community. Middlebury is up next, said Paul Costello, executive director of the VCRD.

He said a basic aim of the program is to determine how communities around Vermont "can take advantage of a changing economy," one in which energy efficiency, alternative energy and other green alternatives are opening up sectors of economic growth.

While the economic future can't be predicted, Costello said, "what we do know is that people are going to make money by solving problems; that's what creative businesses do." A changing economy can therefore lead to "tremendous economic opportunity," he said.

"Strong interest in this process was demonstrated by the thoughtful and dedicated citizens that participated in the meeting last night, said Jon Copans, who is directing the program, following the session. "Their appreciation for Pownal and its many assets was obvious. Folks from all walks of life came out, and the guidance they provided has laid the groundwork for a successful process in the months ahead."

Copans explained to the group how the effort will roll out over the spring and summer, involving informational sessions and public forums, leading to decisions by residents on which specific initiatives they will pursue with the assistance of experts in related fields. He said Wednesday that a kick-off event is planned for June but no firm date has been set. State officials and representatives from the partner entities are expected to participate.

A name for the program in Pownal also was chosen Tuesday from among several suggestions: It will be known as Empower Pownal.

Costello and Copans stressed that the program will be "a community-driven initiative" that will seek the widest possible participation from residents, who will vote to decide which topics to address.

In answer to questions, they said Climate Economy is not a state-run program and doesn't involve any group or business sector "trying to push a political agenda" — referring to a concern one attendee said he had heard voiced recently.

There will be three community sessions over the next few months, during which residents will be encouraged to submit ideas or projects to pursue. Copans said those will be whittled down through discussion to 20 to 25 specific ideas, which will be further reduced through voting by residents to about a half-dozen proposals.

Plans would then be drawn up for individual task forces to tackle projects, along with assigned teams of experts from the partner entities and state government.

Costello said the new program will be similar to the Community Visits meetings VCRD has conducted in recent years in towns around Vermont. He said the process of defining goals and supporting resident-directed action has been honed through some 55 community visits.

On Tuesday, Copans said a number of overarching themes for the forum topics to be considered were identified by those present. Those are Home Efficiency Opportunities; Recreation, Trails, Health and Wellness; Small Business Development; Local Agriculture and Forestry; Getting Around Pownal; Connecting to Other Communities, and Local Grid Resilience and Residential Renewable Energy Development.

Within those board themes, residents will be asked to identify specific goals that separate task force groups can pursue.

Among ideas suggested at the initial meeting were creating or improving hiking or bike trails, making Pownal housing stock more energy efficient; establishing back-up power systems or other methods of powering homes during electricity outages; upgrading town park and open land areas; using recyclable materials as the basis of a local business; expanding residential solar or other energy efficiency options; small business development assistance and supporting agricultural and forestry businesses.

One of the stated goals for the Climate Economy program is to help transform Pownal and other towns into "climate smart" communities by implementing comprehensive efficiency efforts, transportation system improvements, renewable energy generation, entrepreneurship and business incubation to spur economic progress.

Two communities annually will receive technical help or advice in implementing locally developed plans modeling state-of-the-art rural development. Copans has said he hopes to encourage communities to "embrace the transition to a new economy."

All members of the Pownal community will be encouraged to participate, and volunteers are planning an intensive effort to spread word of the initiative to every group or individual.

Anyone wishing to be involved can contact Copans at jon@vtrural.org or 802-225-6393.

More information on the program can be found at www.vtrural.org/model-communities.

Jim Therrien writes for the Bennington Banner and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.




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