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Realizing Rural Dreams

By Jon Reidel Article published April 7, 2004

Fred Schmidt
Associate Professor Fred Schmidt (right), co-director of UVM's Center for Rural Studies, talks with Chuck Ross after serving as facilitators during a meeting of community leaders in Johnson. (Photo: Jon Reidel)

A dozen residents of Johnson are sitting on old wooden benches and chairs arranged in an oval inside an old town hall. They’ve taken time out of their workday on this cool March afternoon to talk about issues facing their northern Vermont community of 3,274.

Five community development experts from across the state invited by the Vermont Council on Rural Development are also in the room. Residents are armed with a comprehensive community profile packet compiled by UVM’s Center for Rural Studies, which has helped towns across the state revitalize their communities by helping secure grants, conducting research, offering expert advice, facilitating meetings, and connecting residents with people in critical state and federal positions.

The topic at hand is public transportation. The options are limited in Johnson, especially since the Greyhound eliminated its route to Burlington due to low ridership. One man says he hasn’t had a car for the last year and now understands the old Vermont adage “you can’t get there from here.” “We’re supposed to be the transportation hub of the area, but this big wheel doesn’t have any spokes,” he says.

The group wonders aloud if its slightly high unemployment rate has something to do with the minimal transportation infrastructure in Johnson. Connections are made between transportation and the successes and failures of the town. Ideas start flowing. Seeds of hope are planted.

A resource at ready
Associate Professor Fred Schmidt, founder of the Center for Rural Studies and one of the state’s leading community development experts, is on hand to observe and, later, offer his expertise. As a former board president of the Community Transportation Association of America, a national organization that represents several hundred rural and small city transportation systems, Schmidt brings first-hand experience to the table.

Schmidt is unassuming and could easily pass for a Johnson resident. Acutely aware that he’s not, he respects this fact by saying very little during the 90-minute brainstorm. The time for Schmidt, who has studied rural communities across the globe for more than three decades, to carry out the rural development council’s mission of “providing information necessary for rural people to exercise control over their individual and collective destiny,” will come later.

“Fred knows several models of community profiling and envisioning,” says VCRD Executive Director Paul Costello ’78, G ’72. “He’s an old hand at this and is an invaluable resource to us and the rest of the state. He told me once that ‘when you know one community in Vermont, you know one community in Vermont.’ He’s a touchstone for us.”

Marshalling university resources
One month after the initial Community Visit, Costello will hold a town meeting where residents will identify key issues, narrowing them down to five via a vote. Costello will return a month later with leaders in the five identified areas, some from UVM, to help build plans to turn the goals into reality.

This process has resulted in positive changes in many Vermont communities including Richford, where improvements in health care, low-income housing, walking paths, schools and downtown buildings have been made. In Poultney, millions of new dollars in grant money was earned for a number of projects, including the restoration and transformation of the Stonebridge Inn into a municipal building and the construction of a Slate Discovery Center.

Costello says the university plays a key role in facilitating these town projects by offering research expertise and community profiles for free. “Our first connection with UVM is as a resource,” Costello says. “We don’t have a big budget so their help is crucial. A lot of people [with the community visits program] are UVM alums. We all have a great deal of patriotism for rural Vermont and UVM.”

Also benefiting from the process are university students who often participate in the visits as part of their coursework. “It’s one thing to hear about community development at 10,000 feet, but students are listening to this while sitting in the middle of it,” Schmidt says.

Schmidt adds that he believes in making decisions about the present and future based on a “firm grasp of local demographics, an understanding of the natural resource base and resident human and social capital.” Having seen the struggles of numerous communities over the years trying to improve themselves, Schmidt, equal parts encourager and realist, tells the Johnson residents that they have a lot of positives to work with, adding they also have a lot of work ahead.