First ‘climate economy’ town begins charting its course

POWNAL — About 30 residents turned out last week to begin planning how to foster a healthy local economy in an era of climate change.

Pownal is the first town in the Climate Economy Model Communities initiative of the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

Middlebury is up next, said Paul Costello, executive director of the council.

Under the new program, residents will set 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 state government.

Costello 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 growth sectors.

Paul Costello

Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. File photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

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.

Costello and Jon Copans, who is directing the program, stressed that it 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 at a meeting last week kicking off Pownal’s effort, they said the climate economy program is not state-run 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.

After the session, Copans said residents showed strong interest in the process by their thoughtful participation. “Their appreciation for Pownal and its many assets was obvious,” he said. “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 initiatives to pursue. He said Wednesday that a kickoff event is planned for June but no firm date has been set.

Participants in last week’s meeting also chose a name for the local program: Empower Pownal.

Three community sessions are planned 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 program will be similar to the series of community visits 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.

Copans said people at the initial meeting identified a number of overarching themes for the forum topics: 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 broad themes, residents will be asked to identify specific goals that task forces can pursue.

Ideas suggested at the initial meeting included creating or improving hiking or bike trails; making Pownal housing stock more energy-efficient; establishing backup 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 and person. Anyone wishing to be involved can contact Copans at [email protected] or 802-225-6393.

More information on the program can be found here.

Jim Therrien

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