Community revitalization effort launched in Arlington
ARLINGTON — With his home town facing significant challenges, former Vermont State Police Col. James Baker said the choice to leave his job in Washington to lead a volunteer community revitalization effort was an easy one.
But Baker also stressed during a noontime kickoff event Friday at Arlington Memorial High School that the effort's success will depend on the work of volunteers willing to serve on committees to address six multifaceted issues.
Speaking before close to 100 residents, students, faculty members and business people, Baker described how the murder of 81-year-old Helen Jones in January and the arrest of 31-year-old town native Timothy Butler in the crime proved to be "a tipping point" in Arlington.
"For many of us, it was a crystallizing moment," he said, one which spurred a number of residents to begin thinking of collectively addressing several related negative trends.
Referring to Butler, who is awaiting trial, Baker said that if he is convicted, "make no mistake, each and every one of us will own a part of this tragedy. He was born here, went to school here and worked here in Arlington."
After a question from an audience member, Baker later agreed that Butler seems a vivid example of someone who "fell through the cracks" of society and local institutions while he was growing up.
Among the issues to be addressed are an aging population, declining school enrollment and looming Act 46-related changes likely for the school district; fewer local job opportunities for young residents after high school; a falling off the robust tourism economy of a couple of decades ago, and an apparent increase in criminal activity, including break-ins, opioid abuse and related violence.
In January, Don Keelan, Florence Belnap, the chief financial officer at Arlington-based Mack Molding, and others approached him and began talking about "bringing the shine back to Arlington," Baker said.
What evolved was an decision to form six committees to address the future of the schools, town government, public safety, recreation issues, economic development, and the local arts, history and tourism.
Committees dealing with school issues and with the arts and the town's historical significance have been meeting, and those will be filled out and others formed over the next two months.
The issues are similar to those faced by communities "all over Vermont," Baker said, but longtime residents had begun to notice and comment on stark differences from the town of two or more decades ago.
Keelan said the volunteer effort will receive some startup funding from Mack Molding and from the Keelan Family Foundation, and the committees will likely work over the long term with state and local officials and elected leaders and seek grant or other funding as required.
In general, Baker said, the committees will be "charged with strengthening the social fiber to improve the quality of life and community well-being" in Arlington.
Looking around the auditorium, Baker said he was assured him that residents have the talent and ability to take on the current challenges "and change this course."
He added, "In March, I was asked to lead this effort and I am proud to do so."
Kate Bryan, director of development at Battenkill Valley Health Care, who also spoke during the meeting, echoed that sentiment, saying, "Looking around this room, it is pretty impressive. I am proud to be part of this."
During a question period that followed the announcement, Baker said the likely first step will be to line up volunteers for the committee and then "get people around the table" to share ideas on how to improve the community.
Those wishing to become involved should call Town Clerk Robin Wilcox at 802-375-2332 to sign up.
Eventually, it's expected that communication links and possibly a website will be established to inform residents of developments and foster a community-wide discussion of issues. Baker said he hopes Arlington students can become involved in the initiatives, especially concerning an online presence.
At one point, he cited a positive attitude lesson he had reinforced during his time in Rutland, when he at first heard negative comments about the department, reflecting low morale. "So, the place to start is in the way you talk about yourselves," Baker said.
"We were thrilled to death with the turnout," he said after the meeting. "And as you heard from the comments, there is a great deal of interest from people who want to get involved."
Keelan described the turnout "remarkable for the middle of the day. And the other part was the mix, the young people, senior citizens, business people, Don Kendall [CEO and president of Mack Molding], and I think that was very encouraging."
Baker seemed the perfect choice for a leadership role, Keelan said, citing his 30 years with the VSP, including a stint as director; and after his retirement in 2009 as interim director of the Vermont Police Academy, as acting police chief in Manchester, and as police chief in Rutland.
Baker was lauded in that city for his role in moving the department past a scandal-plagued era and with helping to lead the city's Project VISION (Viable Initiatives and Solutions through Involvement of Neighborhoods), which addressed crime, housing and economic issues.
In January 2015, Baker accepted a consulting position with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, working in the nation's capital. He said Friday he'll be leaving that job at the end of the year to move back to Arlington — which he has called home since 1981 — full time.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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