Business & Economy

The Deeper Dig: Paul Costello reflects on two decades of community building

Paul Costello
Paul Costello, the outgoing executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, in downtown Montpelier on Monday, Sept. 13. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The Deeper Dig is a weekly podcast from the VTDigger newsroom. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

For 21 years, Paul Costello has helped towns and cities across Vermont envision how to build stronger communities. Looking back on that work today, Costello still can’t stop talking about the future.

“We have to be committed in new ways at this point in our history,” the executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development said last week. Facing big-picture challenges like climate change and entrenched racial injustice will require even more individual participation, Costello said. 

“The only thing we can envision is a better Vermont — and us putting ourselves on the line for it.” 

Costello has announced he will step down at the end of September. His longtime leadership role brought him to more than 80 Vermont towns and cities for months-long conversations about how to attract youth, turn around declining local economies, kickstart broadband projects and more. The Council connects municipalities to officials and business leaders who can help fund and execute local projects. 

The results, Costello said, could be seen in trends like the rise of local communications union districts to build fiber networks, or in live performance series that bring artists and citizens together on village greens. 

But the better indicator, he said, might be the sheer number of people in any given community who show up simply to participate in local decision making.

“In all places, we see this process of people coming together and taking power to drive the future in a way that’s very dramatic and incredibly satisfying to be part of,” Costello said. “In some ways, I think my job has been the best job in Vermont for the last 20 years.”

Brian Lowe, the former chief innovation officer for the city of Burlington, will succeed Costello, the Council on Rural Development announced this week.

On this week’s podcast, Costello discusses the past — and future — of rural development in Vermont. Below is a partial transcript, edited for length and clarity.

Take me back to the beginning of your tenure here 21 years ago. What did Vermont look like in that moment? And what kind of change were you trying to make?

Paul Costello: I was working with a council of people who were thinking historically, like, what are the fundamental challenges that face rural communities? The lack of infrastructure, water and sewer. Back then, the lack of broadband. Nobody had comprehensive solutions. There weren’t a lot of big bold plans for where it was going. And there were a lot of economic doldrums and loss of youth accompanying that, and concern about the future. We were facing a dairy crisis. We were looking at a lot of issues in communities where people were feeling disempowered. 

We’re a council dedicated to improving the life of communities, but we don’t think we have top down answers for communities. We actually believe that local citizens, local leaders, thinking together, working around a table, setting priorities for action — the table rises, good ideas come together, and that the power of communities is really setting spear points of collective activity around arenas of action that are within their power. 

Paul said the process for this work over the past two decades has mostly involved community-wide meetings. Paul and his team help local people brainstorm what they want for the future of their town. Then, they connect local leaders with people who can help fund and execute projects — people like state and federal officials, or business and nonprofit leaders. 

Paul Costello: It’s all about the local community and the local leadership. Nobody builds a vision for Bradford or Barre from the outside. And in fact, you don’t find state, federal agency leadership that’s going to answer your problems. They can only respond to you and your leadership. Washington, D.C., and Montpelier aren’t going to develop an economic development vision for Enosburg or St. Albans. It’s all about local leadership. And then resources follow those who have a sense of direction, common purpose and unity.

You’re saying that you set those goals locally first, and then there become these other opportunities that are available. It kind of snowballs out from there.

Paul Costello: Yeah. And part of the trick is we’d bring those executive leaders in at the beginning, and we wouldn’t give them the opportunity to give speeches about their programs or what their offerings were. They had to sit and listen to the community wrestle with where they wanted to go. In some ways, it ropes them into thinking, “I want to help this community. I see where they’re trying to go.” And then at the end of the process, when the town has their priorities, we bring those people in to say, “Well, here’s what we can do to help. Here’s what we can do from the regional planning or development corporation. Here’s what the Agency of Commerce could do. Here’s what the Agency of Agriculture, here’s what the Senate office could do.” 

It’s extremely inspiring to see this work in practice. It’s real democracy. It involves everyone who cares and who wants to be engaged. And for visitors, people tend to love to do it, because it gets them out of their office, out of the bureaucracy, out of Montpelier, and doing what they care about most — which is listening to real people trying to solve real problems and move their communities forward. It’s pretty inspiring stuff.

On a certain level, it sounds like what you’re describing is local government. Why can’t local governments do that on their own? 

Paul Costello: Well, local governments do a great job, and some governments have the capacity to do that. When you think about a three-person volunteer selectboard in a small town, when you don’t have a town manager — you may be out inspecting culverts one day, and looking at the side of your fire truck and what you need to do for equipment. It’s incredibly complex, and the world is technicized. And not everybody is able to step back and just hear the general opinion of people. 

Plus, people tend to bring their problems to the selectboard. It’s like, here’s the place to complain. Here’s the place to talk about what’s not being done. 

Selectboards invite us in. We never go to a municipality that doesn’t want this service. We honor the invitation with a selectboard, and with their approval, we bring everyone together as equals. So there’s no hierarchy. And it’s not about who you are or your position in society. It’s about your ideas. And we add up those ideas and we depersonalize them. 

So sometimes you have someone who’s been rather cranky about one issue or another, and they bring up affordable housing. And they’re not very polished, and they’re difficult to listen to. And then at the end of the day, the community’s voting on the ideas on the wall of the gymnasium that are most fundamental. They’re not voting town taxes, and they’re not voting municipal decisions. They’re voting what the community wants to move forward. And they may choose that affordable housing thing. 

So things emerge, and it’s inspiring to see the choices that are made. And then to see the number of people who line up for action. In some of these communities, a very small town, you might get 250 people to come out. In a place like Rutland, we had 450 people engaged. Over 200 of them joined committees to drive work forward for the future of Rutland. So it’s real democracy. And in general, it really supports the municipality. Selectboards see it as providing this momentum, and this atmosphere of progress, that it’s really hard for you to build from the desk or from your evening meetings.

How many towns would you hazard a guess that you’ve done this work with over these years?

Paul Costello: We’ve done it with about 80. We’ve spent a lot of time on the road, a lot of night meetings, a lot of really getting to know people in Vermont, in every part of the state — in very small towns and in cities ranging from Rutland to Manchester and Bennington. 

You get a real strong sense of the feeling and capacity of different places, and the difference in capacity and the optimism of different towns. The hopefulness. 

Some towns are happier than others. Some towns, people have a sense of confidence. Some towns feel like they’re forgotten, and they feel they’re on the periphery and that they have less internal resources. And it’s really hard to build momentum. We’re constantly trying to be useful in any number of communities, as different as Killington and Island Pond. And in all places, we see this process of people coming together and taking power to drive the future in a way that’s very dramatic and incredibly satisfying to be part of. So in some ways, I think my job has been the best job in Vermont for the last 20 years.

I asked Paul if any communities he’s worked with stood out as success stories. He mentioned Johnson. Residents there made plans to rebuild the town’s streetscapes, work on water and sewer systems, and build affordable housing. But in doing all that, they had this side benefit of bringing together people who otherwise never worked with one another.

Paul Costello: People talked about, you know, in our modern era of commuting away from town for work, we’ve become bubbles within the community. There’s the school community. There’s the downtown merchants group. The municipality itself. The college on the hill. There’s the arts group, there’s the veterans groups. We all have our own invitation lists. We all go to our own events. And we become disconnected from the larger sense of our community and diversity. 

They said, we want to build a communications committee. That group met for a month, and it said, we don’t want to sit around talking about communications. We want to use all the vehicles of communication and all the invitation processes we have in this community to pull together. Some things cost big money — multimillion dollar downtown redevelopments, or redoing derelict buildings. And some things are free, which is building your Thursday night “live on the green” event — that all those people share their invitation process, they share who’s doing which show when. 

It just builds this life and vitality to the downtown. That’s fun for everybody. Everybody starts being on the green together. In our society today, the way Facebook and the internet divides us and breaks us into fractured communities of mutual distrust or animosity, that kind of stuff is incredibly valuable. So the one thing that we see towns have in common is that sense of momentum and uplift from having a sense of direction together, and renewal of the community spirit of volunteers that want to get things done.

That’s interesting. There’s the end result of this process where there might be some concrete change. But it sounds like what you’re describing is that the process itself is part of the change that you’re affecting — the process of bringing people together and getting them involved is a big contributor to that sort of vitality that you’re talking about.

Paul Costello: Yeah, the two really go together. If you want to do public engagement, and you want to sit around talking about public engagement, you’re going to get boring pretty quick. If you’re talking about engaging together to get real things done, it’s got a trajectory. People want a sense of purpose and progress. It’s not like we’re supplying it, but we’re helping people galvanize that together as teams. It’s just super, super satisfying. 

Why are some towns happier than others? Why are some towns feeling forgotten right now?

Paul Costello: We’ve gone through tremendous economic change and dislocation with the global economy, with the transitions in the agriculture and forest products industry — some of the foundations of Vermont. You have towns along the Connecticut River built on tool and die, and that industry is not what it was. You have places built on manufacturing and textiles that’s not there anymore. Different parts of the state have been more hit by that. 

It’s been harder for some places to get engaged at the same level of technology. Broadband being slow to some places has been a block to their progress. And some places basically have different kinds of infrastructure, beyond broadband. Some places have a college in the community, some places have a hospital. And there are places that have none of those sort of fundamental cornerstones of prosperity. If you’re a young person in our society, and there’s not broadband in your community — once you get through school, and especially if you go to college, you’re probably not coming back. Digital natives won’t live without the connectivity. 

The heart can be kicked out of a town when there’s not youth there. So every town, we wrestle with, how do we situate ourselves as dynamic centers for young people to want to live here? And that connects with, how do we move forward the food systems movement that’s going to inspire young people who want to be on the land? To the creative economy — how do we build downtowns that are dynamic centers of arts and activities and creativity that will capture the imagination of both the artists, but also tech people who want to be in that living, diverse, creative environment? 

And so a lot of our work comes bottom-up from communities. And then you say, what are some of the solutions that other communities are using that we can be sharing, or that are going on in other towns nationally, that may be inspiring models for Vermont towns?

You’re saying in a way that that has to come from the bottom up, because there’s this whole menu of solutions that are out there. The people of that town kind of have to pick which type of thing is right for them.

Paul Costello: Nobody buys an imposed vision, right? Nobody wants to follow something. They want to create. And to really own something, you have to have thought it through. 

And also, local folks know best their own resources, and they know best their own assets. Sometimes they’re not really conscious of those assets because they haven’t listed them. So we actually start with that sort of stuff. You find incredible richness in some of the very smallest places, both the creativity and diversity of people who’ll live there. But also natural assets and businesses. 

So you start with that. And if people think together, and they are honestly discoursing, there’s natural progress to that. You ask what you want for the future, and people come up with really great ideas. And when you prioritize those ideas in terms of what’s within your power, people choose really wise, thoughtful things. 

I have to imagine there’s a limit on that, though, because a lot of the problems that you’ve mentioned are problems that are not even really local in scope. Things like the broadband gap, or the decline in dairy — these are things that a town isn’t really going to be able to solve, right? How do you overcome that?

Paul Costello: Well, you need to add up what happens at the community level into proactive public policy, and that’s the other half of our work. But never underestimate the power of what a community does. When Hardwick, in 2005 or so, raised this flag — they said, “We’re going to be the center of Vermont’s agricultural renaissance.” Nobody gave them permission. It wasn’t really true yet. But entrepreneurial guys, everyone from Jasper Hill to Vermont Natural Coatings and High Mowing Seeds, got together and said, “We’re a team, we’re going to support each other’s operations, we’re going to do what we can to commonly distribute product and market ourselves and market our community and bring in more energy.” That’s powerful. 

Broadband as well. We had, at one point, 45 or 50 different broadband committees, way before there was broadband in the Northeast Kingdom, that were aggregating local demand and building a marketplace of 250 people ready to spend $40 a month and then helping to draw in a wireless provider. And as time went on, those groups got together, like ECFiber, and they formed a 15 town coalition. All those towns had broadband committees with us. That power of local action is essential. 

And let’s face it, politics isn’t really top-down either. It’s based on an authorizing environment that comes from the citizens and their own leadership, the things that people are ready to stand for, the things that are OK. Like the fact that we’re now looking really deeply at climate, the climate economy. Addressing climate by building Vermont as a solution center comes from a lot of people thinking about that and making it politically possible for representatives and the administration to say, “Yeah, this is central to Vermont. It’s not a fringe idea.” Ten years ago, if you were a politician talking about climate change, it might be really risky for you to talk that way, especially if you’re talking about putting dollars into it. But today, we’re in a different game. And that’s a kind of progress. It has to come from top down, but it also has to be led by people.

We bring people together who have really a lot of brilliance, and we try to help them find: What do we have in common? And what do we build from as we start this conversation? It’s just fascinating work, in terms of values, and intellectually as a process.

It does seem fascinating. It also, to me, seems kind of exhausting to constantly be thinking about things at that 10,000-foot level. You’re talking about this whole range of towns, and you’re talking about this nebulous, future timeframe here. Does that get tiring? 

Paul Costello: Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, 21 years in, it’s tiring.

On the other hand, I think that we’ve gone through a period in our democracy, especially in the last few years, where we’ve seen democracy threatened. Do we actually all agree on what justice means? Have we fulfilled our national ideals around racial justice, equity, fairness? The fact that we have gotten to a period where people suspect science instead of have faith in science — we’ve gotten to where we suspect everything, and we don’t trust that we have common values. And so the breakdown of common values puts us in a situation where as a people, if we can be a people, we lose a sense of direction. That makes everything a tactical battle, and we get our heads down around what we disagree on, and we can’t think big about the fundamental challenges that we need to face — like advancing racial justice, like answering climate change. 

So it may be exhausting to raise those big-picture ideas and ideals. And sometimes you may be stepping out on a limb and look a little philosophical. You know, “Is this just visionary nonsense?” 

On the other hand, who else does it? Politicians often end up working to do that, but are often situated partly based on their self-interest and how they’re working for their party and so forth. We think it’s really useful for an organization to take the courage to bring people together and ask those kinds of questions around the big-picture future and frame — knowing that you’re going to have imperfect answers, and that you’re never going find this perfect unity or anything, but frame the best pragmatic directions that you can, and share those as a framework for people’s thinking and dialogue and so forth. 

When you personally look out, say, 21 years from now, what does Vermont look like then? How does it look different from today?

Paul Costello: I think in our society, we tend to be really pessimistic — that we know climate change is fundamental, we know that reconciliation and acceptance and deepening our mutual sense of belonging is fundamental. And the social media that we face is constantly trying to help you build a bigger problem statement. Like, “there’s not only that, there’s this.” Like, “Let’s get hysterical. Everything’s falling apart.”

We call that doomscrolling.

Paul Costello: [Laughs] Exactly. And then you just think about it. We go to a small town, and the principal of the school describes the fact that his kids come to school anxious. Nervous about the future. Nervous about whether things are OK. [That was] before Covid — and with Covid, you’ve got anxiety on steroids. But you go to a cocktail party, or having beers with friends, and there’s kids running around, people will talk about, you know, “We’ve got 20 years, and then the shit’s gonna hit the fan with climate.” Like, laughing it off and going on to the next topic. But our kids hear us saying this stuff. And that’s not right. It’s not acceptable. 

It’s time for us to be the adults in the room, and to stand up and say, “No, we’re going to look at that.” We’re going to need transformational change. We’re not going to be successful just with small increments of change around climate. We’re going to need to think differently, act differently. We’re going to need a different economy. We’re going to recreate differently. 

You think 21 years from now, and you can’t just say, “Well, I hope things get better,” or, you know, “I can envision the apocalypse, or I can envision a better Vermont.” The only thing we can envision is a better Vermont — and us putting ourselves on the line for it. Because we’re responsible. And we have to work as teams. We have to be committed in new ways at this point in our history. Because it’s not acceptable to devolve into our independent little worlds and do what we like to do, and let the planet suffer, and acquiesce in the face of injustices. 

I just think that we’re at a point of history that calls for significant reform. We’re seeing some of that reform and reinvestment, but for that to fulfill the kind of transformational impact that’s necessary for us to be successful starts with individual commitments in democracy. In democracy, you don’t just vote once a year. You stand up for your community. That doesn’t mean standing against people. It’s important that there are people who protest and are active, to make sure our voices are powerful. But we all have a responsibility to act together and to find the path of progress. And we have to have to actually actualize progress in teams for the future of Vermont.

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Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is VTDigger’s digital editor. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Mike spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: [email protected]

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