RICHFORD — Levi Irish knows change isn’t always easy in this small town.
The longtime Richford resident stood in a patch of grass along Main Street, about a mile south of the Canadian border, where an outdoor ice skating rink is set to go up this winter.
As the town’s economic development coordinator, Irish has supported the project from the outset. It’s something “quintessential New England,” she said, noting outdoor recreation facilities are key to bolstering Richford’s historically industrial economy.
But credit for the rink is really due to local high school students, Irish said, who secured thousands of dollars for it themselves.
Irish is firm in her belief that the challenges facing her hometown — high among them, a lack of new development on Main Street — can and should be solved by locals.
Maybe that looks like opening a new restaurant in town, just as Scott Boyce did on River Street this fall. Maybe it’s applying for more state grants. Maybe it’s painting murals and repairing benches, like a group of local students did in August.
“We have to believe in us,” Irish said as the occasional car or truck passed by. “Because everybody else forgot a long time ago.”
Richford has long struggled with higher-than-average poverty rates, lower incomes, lower home values, lower educational attainment and other indicators. About 15% of residents live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census, and per capita income in town is about $18,000, roughly half of what it is statewide.
Forty-nine percent of housing units in town are renter-occupied, Irish said, more than 1.5 times the Vermont rate. And about 8% of residents have received a bachelor’s degree or higher, census data shows, compared with 38% of residents statewide.
One reason big change is difficult in Richford, Irish said, is that the town government has just two full-time staff members: the town clerk and an assistant. The selectboard is made up of volunteers and cannot always devote time to longer-term projects, she said.
But now, officials hope to hire a town administrator, using $40,000 in funding over the next two years. Ideally, the person holding the position will be a go-to source for questions and ideas around town, said Ginger Morse, treasurer of the Richford Economic Advancement Corp.
“Instead of going to this organization if you want this or this organization if you want that,” Morse said, “you have this one person who is that central cog.”
Selectboard member Andy Pond agreed that having a town administrator would improve Richford’s coordination with outside agencies. The position, he said, can be “the eyes and ears of the selectboard during the working day.”
Irish said she would like the town government to help local businesses or organizations apply for the state’s Capital Investment Grant Program, which is funded through the American Rescue Plan Act. For instance, she said, funding could help an existing business in town market to new customers or help a local hotel improve its amenities and services.
Richford also could benefit from drawing outdoor tourists to its natural resources, Irish said — perhaps by setting up tubing on the Missisquoi River, which runs through town, or creating a sledding hill that people could snow tube down in the winter.
“If I was at Jay Peak and I wasn’t a skier — which happens all the time, oddly enough — and I knew there was a snow tubing hill here … I would go,” she said.
Boyce, who opened Thirsty Burger in September, said he knows people come to the restaurant on weekends from other towns in Franklin County. Some of them also will stop for fuel, ice or a snack at the gas stations on Main Street, he said.
When Boyce opened his restaurant, he expected to serve 50 or 60 orders a night. But he’s actually served around 150 orders a night, he said, proof that residents are willing to support a new local business — even during the pandemic.
Thirsty Burger is one of just a few eateries in town. Boyce said the building was in pretty rough shape when he bought it, with windows smashed out and boarded up.
The repairs Boyce made to the place were contagious, he said. Multiple nearby property owners also did renovations, including one who put up sunshades.
“The town needs it,” Boyce recalled telling someone at the time. “I think it’s going to be good for everybody to see business come in here.”
Boyce said he would like to see a hardware store open up in town since the closest ones are down in Enosburg. Richford used to have more local stores, he said.
Irish said the transportation options connecting Richford with other communities in the region also could be improved — or at least made safer.
For instance, she said, Route 105 — which links Richford with St. Albans to the south and Newport to the east — is becoming increasingly dangerous to drive. Seven people have died on 105 so far this year from motor vehicle crashes, according to police.
And the Green Mountain Transit bus route between Richford and St. Albans runs just once a day during the week each way, Irish said, on a schedule that does not work for most people.
Richford residents commute about half an hour to work on average, some 20% longer than Vermonters as a whole, according to the census.
Ryan Lumbra, 17, has lived in Richford his whole life. He’s in the automotive technology program at Cold Hollow Career Center, a technical school in Enosburg Falls.
Lumbra said that he also would like to see a hardware store in town, and that it would be great to have more local gathering places — such as the planned ice skating rink.
“I wish we had things to do in Richford instead of having to go other places,” he said. “Like if you want to go bowling, you have to go to Enosburg.”
‘It depends on what you do’
Richford also lacks some human services, Irish said.
The Northern Tier Center for Health operates a health center and grocery store on Main Street that she called “a godsend.” But there’s still a need for more local counseling services, Irish said, and treatment options for people with substance use disorders.
“As it stands, I don't think many people actually think there are many opportunities around here,” Lumbra said. “But it depends on what you do. Because I want to go into automotive, and they don’t have that education close by.”
Still, many people in the community have been in town for years — generations even, said Morse of the Economic Advancement Corp. She has lived in Richford most of her life, and her daughter teaches math at the high school.
Richford has more going for it than people see when they drive through, Morse said. The key is figuring out how to get people to stop and stay.
“We’re going to change that,” Irish said, standing next to a mural that students painted along Main Street. “People aren’t going to come up here because they have to. They’re going to want to come.”
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